Friday, November 4, 2016
Next Stop, Valhalla
New York Review of Books
November 4, 2016
Rossini’s Guillaume Tell—now being staged at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time since 1931, and for the first time ever there in its original French—is as powerful a piece of operatic machinery as Parisian opera had to offer in 1829. Its broad and spacious structure is animated by warm and full-bodied surges of feeling, and when set in motion this nearly five-hour work can still deliver a sustained experience of sensory and emotional overabundance. Here Rossini, having come to Paris five years earlier as the renowned thirty-one-year-old composer of thirty-three operas, created in what would be his last work for the stage a perfected fusion of the approaches available to him, by turns epic and delicate and charged with dramatic bravura.
As a French opera by an Italian composer based on a German play adapted from a Swiss legend, it is tempting to think of Guillaume Tell as a symptom of transnational yearning, with Swiss patriotism serving as the emblem of a wider union. William Tell is not much more historical a figure than Robin Hood, and so makes a perfect hero for an all-purpose celebration of liberty and solidarity with none of the ambivalences and mixed motives of actual politics. The story of the master archer Tell ordered to shoot an apple off his son’s head by the Austrian tyrant Gessler, was supposed to have transpired sometime in the early fourteenth century. A signal event of the Swiss national saga, it was already the stuff of children’s tales when Schiller wrote his play in 1805. Rossini’s French librettists—four of them in the end, churning out successive rewrites like screenwriters at Warner Brothers—streamlined Schiller’s chronicle-like structure to place Tell more decisively at the center of events, while concocting an appropriately conflicted love interest between the Swiss patriot Arnold Melchthal and the Austrian princess Mathilde. The result was a template for the political sublime: politics without messy political details and therefore without doubt or confusion, an ecstatic rallying point for sentiments like “independence or death” and “liberty, come down once more from the sky.”
It is a momentarily realized dream of national victory understood as synonymous with the triumph of liberty and of every form of domestic tenderness, a triumph synonymous in turn with the “pure air,” “radiant day,” and “boundless horizon” of the Swiss landscape when the mist finally lifts at the opera’s end. Rossini’s music becomes for all those things the ultimate metaphor, enacting every shade of exultation and liberty and radiance and boundlessness. The heroism of Tell’s compatriots in their struggle against the Austrian yoke finds its natural expression in jubilant singing, while the roles of Gessler and his soldiers reveal not tortured complexity but simple brute cruelty. Communal celebrations, protests, laments, vows of loyalty, and calls to arms are embodied in successive waves of choral singing, each seeming to attain the highest imaginable peak until the next advances further. The whole work functions as a massive act of encouragement, constructed to induce in the audience the sense of a brave and finally invulnerable collective spirit: “For us no more servile fear, /Let us be men, and we shall conquer!”