The famous overture from Rossini’s thrilling opera William Tell is instantly recognisable and has been used in hundreds of television shows, Disney cartoons and films. Triumphant trumpets followed by a dramatic galloping tune lend themselves particularly well to break-neck chases and heroes riding to victory. One of the most demanding operas ever written, Rossini’s extravagant final masterpiece entered the world in 1829 and now it’s back in The Gaiety Theatre Dublin for the first time since 1877.
Irish National Opera’s artistic director, Fergus Sheil, who conducts the production, says, “I don’t know whether I’m foolhardy or a visionary to have taken on such a gargantuan project. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, and easily the most complex work we’ve taken on at INO since our foundation in 2018. Appropriately, for a work set in Switzerland, it’s a mountainous climb, exhilarating, dizzying, almost overwhelming. As one of William Tell’s great advocates, conductor Antonio Pappano, put it, ‘there’s really something superhuman about this piece’.”
Sheil continues, “Like almost everyone, I fell in love with the overture first, the famous Lone Ranger gallop, and then the uniquely gorgeous opening for five solo cellos. The opera itself is almost unbelievably rich. The choruses are hugely stirring, the vocal writing is full of high-wire moments . . . basically, Rossini uses every trick in his arsenal, every skill and every technique possible, to deliver the grandest, most glorious, engaging, funny, dramatic and uplifting opera imaginable. And, as a work that celebrates a moment of emerging nationhood, it concludes appropriately in a dazzling spectacle of sunshine.”
William Tell is about a freedom fighter in Austrian-occupied Switzerland, with a populace restless in the face of an oppressive Habsburg governor. There’s also a scene with the most famous Swiss apple. And there’s a love story that crosses national divides. It was Rossini’s most ambitious, forward-looking and vocally challenging opera.
The opera is INO’s first co-production with Switzerland’s Nouvel Opéra Fribourg. But it’s not the Swiss company’s first Irish connection. The director, Julien Chavaz, and costume designer, Severine Besson, worked together on a “colour-obsesessed” production of Irish composer Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest for them in 2019. Chavaz says, “I am fascinated by the universal and mythological side of the William Tell story. The story is not just about a remote Swiss community facing Austrian invaders. It is the story of a society, its work values and its communion with nature, a society that suddenly has to face a threat to its model of civilisation. It is about an almost biblical, ideal vision of humanity. That is why I have approached the opera as mythology, as a fable. I also believe that Rossini translated the relationship with nature in his William Tell in an unparalleled way. As in popular legends, meteorological events are crucial and they mirror the tensions and aspirations of the people. After all, nature is stronger than any human construct.”
Canadian baritone Brett Polegato shares the title role with Irish-resident Hungarian baritone Gyula Nagy. Mexican tenor Jesús León shares the role of Arnold Melchtal, son of a Swiss patriarch, with South Korean tenor Konu Kim. The role of Mathilde, sister of the reviled Austrian governor Gessler, is shared between Irish sopranos Máire Flavin and Rachel Croash. And Irish baritone Owen Gilhooly-Miles replaces Gyula Nagy as the heroic shepherd Leuchtold on the night Nagy steps into the title role.
Also in the cast are Irish soprano Amy Ní Fhearraigh (as Jemmy), Irish mezzo-soprano Imelda Drumm (as Hedwige), Polish bass Lukas Jakobski (as Melchtal senior and Walter Furst), British bass-baritone David Ireland (as Gessler), Irish tenors Andrew Gavin (as Ruodi) and Patrick Hyland (Rodolphe), and Irish baritone Matthew Mannion (as Hunter).
William Tell is in The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin on Tuesday 8, Wednesday 9, Friday 11, Saturday 12 & Sunday 13 November.