Irish National Opera's William Tell. Image Pat Redmond
At almost four hours, Irish National Opera's production of Rossini's William Tell (Guillaume Tell, 1829), co-produced with Nouvel Opéra Fribourg, gives you only one choice: embrace it. The option wisely favoured by conductor, and INO's artistic director, Fergus Shiel. Like a child finding forgotten treasure, Shiel savours every note, each chord, every arrangement, beginning with Rossini's famous overture, the music enriched by Shiel's deep love of it. But William Tell was also intended as spectacle. To be seen as well as heard. Alas, while there's lots visually going on, and the occasional striking image, much of its spectacle looks rather insipid. Tipping over from fun into downright funny. Often awash in a sickly colour palette steeped in soul destroying beige.
Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Jemmy; Patrick Hyland, Rodolphe; Brett Polegato, Guillaume Tell in William Tell. Image Pat Redmond.
If William Tell sees Rossini still exploring musical ideas in his final opera, particularly around chorus, narratively the multi-authored libretto is a case of how to make a long story longer. The only meat on the narrative bone being when Switzerland's national hero risks killing his son, Jemmy, by shooting an apple from his head. Along with the pained relationship the fickle, flip flopping Arnold endures with the beguiling Mathilde, an Austrian princess. Storms, pastoral references, rebellions galore, and the kind of deus ex machina moments that give opera a bad name, and it all leads to heroes doing heroic things with villains conveniently vanquished. All in the name of national pride and freedom. Executed with such musical verve, by the end you forgive almost all of the lazy contrivances. Except that of believing anyone would willingly sacrifice that gorgeous red dress for the Laura Ingalls teacher look circa 1888.
Patrick Hyland as Rodolphe, David Ireland as Gessler and chorus in INO's William Tell. Image Pat Redmond.
Visually, warning signs prove curious early on, with leaning into nature equated with a fairytale reductionism. Nicole Morel's choreography, suggesting a playfulness with ballet and form, seems to be making fun as much as having fun. A tendency director Julien Chavaz reinforces. His Switzerland under Austrian occupation rendered with such cartoonish delight words like oppression and freedom sound almost ironic. By the time you get to the apple scene, if the cartoonish doesn't completely cancel out the drama it seriously compromises it. Confirmed by howls of laughter at the unimaginative approach to the apple. Similarly, Severine Besson's costumes. Red villains, looking straight out of Alice in Wonderland, resemble plucked roosters with serious sunburn. Or a murder of bloodstained crows. Henchmen for the corpulent, Queen-of-Hearts styled Gesler on his elevated throne. Off with their heads. Unless they can shoot an apple off their heads that is.
Imelda Drumm as Hedwige and chorus in INO's William Tell. Image Pat Redmond.
Meanwhile, the twig wielding, rebellious Swiss suggest anaemic hospital inmates staging a beige revival of A Midsomer Night's Dream.A hospital where a bomb went off covering everyone in plaster. If the deer show some visual flair, becoming unwelcome comic relief during the powerful finale, Jamie Vartan's raked set with its screens and lighting bolt, like the projected forecast for a modest startup, looks uncomfortably self-conscious. As if crafted more for the eye of the screen rather than stage, even as it finds its feet during the storm sequence. As for its unpalatable colour scheme, it should be outlawed with immediate effect. Even drowning it in red can't redeem it.
Brett Polegato as Guillaume Tell and Amy Ní Fhearraigh as Jemmy in INO's William Tell. Image Pat Redmond.
What proves immensely attractive is some stunning singing. Baritone Brett Polegato as Tell wonderfully resonant and commanding. Tenor Jesús León's Arnold might be punching above his emotional vocal weight next to soprano Márie Flavin's divine Mathilde, but his rendition of Asile héréditaire suggests hidden depths. Baritone Gyula Nagy (Lethold), mezzo-soprano Imelda Drumm (Hedwige), tenor Patrick Hyland (Rodolphe), and bass-baritone David Ireland (Gesler) are also strong. But it's soprano Amy Ní Fhearraigh who soars with a beautiful vocal performance. Even so, Irish National Opera's Chorus, under chorus director Elaine Kelly, steal the show, their finale one of several moments bordering on breathtaking. Director Chavaz, in a moment of genius, capturing the chorus breathing as one with the singer. One of many Chavaz moments. The pained juxtaposition of Tell the man with Tell the heroic archer captured by Polegato and dancer Stephanie Dufresne with subtlety and simplicity. Rising above the childlike to become a moment to sink your teeth into. Holding other visual shortcomings to account.
Máire Flavin as Mathilde and Chorus in INO's William Tell. Image Pat Redmond
First night nerves might not have yielded the fullest vocals, but there was enough to suggest this will resolve as the run progresses. As, hopefully, will some shadow issues in Sinéad Wallace's otherwise impressive lighting. Steeped in thunderously dull beige, William Tell risks being perceived as a beige opera. Yet if spectacle can fall short, music and singing richly compensate. Startlingly, the last time William Tell was produced in Ireland was 1877. Making INO's William Tell a genuinely historical production and something of a rare treat. One infused with genuine passion, containing many a moment to treasure.
Gioachino Rossini's William Tell (Guillaume Tell), by Irish National Opera, co-produced with Nouvel Opéra Fribourg, runs at The Gaiety Theatre until November 13.