William Tell for our times

3 Jul 2018

In the 19th century, Paris Opera was a centre for entertaining, socialising and mischief. Richard Mills, Victorian Opera's Artistic Director, reflects on William Tell in this epoch and explains why it continues to prevail in contemporary times.

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Rehearsals for Victorian Opera's production of William Tell. Photo: Charlie Kinross

This masterwork first saw the light of day on 3 August 1829, in Paris, at the Salle de Peletier, which was the home of the Paris Opera from 1821 until the building burned down in 1873. This theatre was steeped in the traditions of French ballet and saw the premieres of La Sylphide (1832), Giselle (1841) and Coppélia (1870). It was at the centre of the social and artistic life of 19th century Paris and in 1858 was the setting for one of the most famous games in the history of chess – played by American master Paul Morphy and two French aristocrats, the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard – during a performance of Norma.

This fact tells us a great deal about the place of opera as entertainment for the bourgeoisie and aristocracy of 19th century Paris – and the concept of the opera house as a focus of civic pride and a place for meetings, dinners, socialising and mischief. This range of activities, over and above actually listening to the singers, gives an indication of the listening habits of early 19th century opera goers. We do well to remind ourselves that there was no cinema, one of the loudest noises anyone heard was the steam train and,  compared to the 21st century, people had time on their hands, particularly the middle and upper classes.

These facts, as well as the inheritance of a long and complex social tradition dating back to the 1600s, makes the elaborate web of social mores surrounding the opera in 19th century Paris something quite foreign to our contemporary sensibilities. The late 19th century Wagnerian reformation resulted in the notion of the theatre as a ‘temple of ideas’ rather than an elaborate platform for social interactions which took place in the context of performances, substantially informed by many inherited conventions.

Composers, to survive, had to bow to the fact that, particularly in Paris, these conventions, social and otherwise, reigned supreme. Wagner’s Tannhäuser lasted only four performances in 1861 because the ballet was in the first act – members of Parisian Jockey Club arrived after dinner, usually for Act Two and expected to see their favourite ballerinas on duty.

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Painting of the Salle de Peletier during a performance of a ballet (1864). Source: Wikimedia

However, some great music was written for this theatre and these conditions including Gounod’s Faust, Verdi’s Don Carlos and Donizetti’s Les Martyrs, and of course Guillaume Tell (William Tell).

Artistic committees made many of the decisions of the Paris Opera in Rossini’s time in the areas of scenography, costume and illuminations. And, of course, ballet was essential. Tell provides opportunities for visual illusion (alpine scenery, archery tricks, a raging storm) that would satisfy the populace’s appetite for scenic spectacle and dance, but which contribute almost nothing to the progress and substance of the drama at hand. While the balletic and scenic effects helped ensure the success of the work with 19th century Parisians, this material for a 21st century public – who have no real expectation of scenic extravagance (we have cinema for that) and who also have no interest in acres of balletic spectacle – is of limited interest.

Interestingly, this Parisian fascination for scenic spectacle persists today, for example at the Folies Bergère. I remember – many years ago – sitting through a pageant of ‘the great queens of France’ (sic) and the lady in front of me exclaiming to her companion about the scenic drapery, ‘O Chérie, les mauves!’ (‘Oh darling, those purple drapes!’)

Well, we have no purple drapes in our William Tell – not even the marks where they might have been – as the essence of this great work inspires a reverence because of its quality as dramatic music and real seriousness of purpose at its core. Rossini’s greatness transcends the prevailing conditions of his age and bequeaths a work which speaks to our times and, I think, times to come.

The concerns of the opera emerge as surprisingly contemporary, finding many parallels in our own world. A rural community who live simply, in harmony with nature, are oppressed by an occupying power who mock this simplicity of life, ban their rituals and do not hesitate to use violence and murder as a means of subjugation. Two father-son relationships are fractured by this force: Melcthal and his son Arnold, and William Tell and his son Jemmy. Melcthal’s brutal murder provokes Arnold to join the struggle and Gesler’s cruel and sadistic ‘trial by apple and arrow’ proves to be the last straw for the enslaved populace. Gesler is finally revealed as coward, dies in ignominy and the community rediscovers the majesty of nature and freedom, celebrating in one of the greatest concluding ensembles in opera.

Director Rodula Gaitanou and I have cleaned away the 19th century paraphernalia from the score and returned to its essence – with strong simple storytelling underpinned by similarly strong musical continuity and careful editing to preserve the important features of Rossini style.

I suppose it’s similar to restoring an old master painting: the original vibrancy of the work is re-affirmed, its great musical inventiveness, dramatic power and content emerge to engage with issues that are part of our own immediate world. The enduring capacity of a masterpiece to renew itself and be rediscovered by succeeding generations is completely present in this opera. It started life among the perfumed fantasy and exoticism of French Romantic theatre, it is reborn for us as a document of struggle, a drama of courage, the strength of family, community and humanity expressed through wonderful dramatic music made by a great heart and soul – Rossini.

By Richard Mills, Victorian Opera Artistic Director

Victorian Opera performed William Tell as part of Season 2018.