BRISTOL HIPPODROME

William Tell - November 2014

 

 

A revolution of extraordinary proportions was staged on Saturday night at the Bristol Hippodrome when William Tell was performed by the Welsh National Opera Company.

It was simply brilliant.

The backdrop was a huge painted square which folded in half and on the reverse exposed a gantry of ladders and platforms.

And that was it apart from a long table – the sole props.

Oh I forgot some cardboard boxes.

The costumes and the lit backdrop were in 50 shades of grey with occasionally a touch of red to depict brutality or gaiety but there isn’t much of the latter.

In the instrumentals the cast danced, mimed or acted using pretend puppets or just their agile limbs.

At nearly four hours long and performed in four acts your eyes (and ears) were transfixed by the action unfurling in front of you.

This was opera at its best - so beautiful and yet so ugly.

In this technological age with its mobile devices and moving pictures can an opera written nearly 200 years ago transfix a modern audience?

The answer is yes, yes, yes.

William Tell opens with a lament played by a lone cellist and moves from woeful wedding scene to battle weary carnage as the life and death drama with at its core the apple on a young boy's the head.

Voices dip and surge to depict the drama while bodies twirl to make waves, writhe to depict the dying and squirm from sexual advances by the victorious soldiers.

This isn’t for the faint hearted.

In the beginning you think the WNO is acting out the story of their Welsh roots and that the characters come from the mining valleys but then the cruel conquerors wearing jack boots, animalistic headgear and stark black facial paint use military precision to put down an uprising.

The Swiss make an impassioned call to arms to fight for the Fatherland against the tyrants.

The scene with the twitching and twisted bodies laying on what looks like a butcher’s slab is a real piece of theatre.

Reminiscent of a concentration camp it brings the carnage cruelty up-to-date.

The Landburgher Gessler is nothing like the very fat fellow from the 1950s black and white uplifting television series.

Although the armour clad character is sinister he is more like the mad scientist played by Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove - a wheelchair-bound war expert and former Nazi.

Parts of the famous overture were used as the theme tune for the ITV programme and also for The Lone Ranger where the good cowboy fights outlaws helped by his partener Tonto, another tale of the good defeating the bad.

National liberation and personal freedom were the themes explored in its autumn season by the WNO.

With a battle cry of ‘liberty or death’ besides William Tell the WNO gave us another new production of Rossini's Moses in Egypt and a revival of Bizet’s Carmen.

William Tell and Moses in Egypt used the same staging and were directed by WNO chief executive and artistic director David Pountney with music director Carlo Rizzi.

William Tell is an epic political and romantic work and Rossini’s last opera.

The role of William Tell was sung by David Kempster. 

British tenor Barry Banks took the role of Arnold whose leading lady Mathilde is sung by Gisela Stille.

Leah-Marion Jones as William Tell’s wife Hedwige and Fflur Wyn as his son Jemmy were among the principals to get a well deserved rapturous response at the end.

Set designer Raimund Bauer, costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca and choreographer Amir Hosseinpour also deserve to share this adoration.

Mr Pountney said: “As opera quite literally moved from the court to the city in the 19th century, so it became increasingly the arena in which the destiny of the state was evoked with all the grandeur and spectacle that opera could muster.

“In our season 'Liberty or Death!' the destiny of the state is what is at stake on the one hand, and in the field of personal relations, the liberty of the individual on the other.

“These are massive ideas, and the genius of Rossini and Bizet is equal to the task of giving them voice in the context of gripping and important dramas.

“Big ideas flowing with big emotion: this is what opera is for.” 

Moses In Egypt got a rave review from Mike Smith of Wales online who said: “This is sumptuously sung, modestly yet effectively staged, and bathed in gorgeous orchestral playing under the baton of Carlo Rizzi” Carmen didn’t fare as well.

But Jane Batt, of the Portishead-based website Practically Perfect Mums, wrote: “I went to the theatre expecting a vibrant, colourful performance full of energetic gypsy dancing but it didn’t really live up to my expectations.

“The voice of Alessandra Volpe as Carmen was mellow and her appearance as a gypsy temptress was convincing but at times she wasn’t clearly audible, especially when singing duets or alongside a loud orchestral piece.

“The muted colours of the stage, scenery and costumes coupled with the low level lighting were visually disappointing and didn’t echo the beautiful energetic music.

“Moody low level lighting and lack of spotlights on key performers sometimes made it difficult to immediately locate who was singing.”

WNO continue this tour at Birmingham and Southampton.

 

Carol Deacon

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