Among the abiding mysteries of the Metropolitan Opera is how a juggernaut with such abundant resources, access to talent, and time to prepare can keep delivering theatrical duds. The Met has gone 80 years without a production of Guillaume Tell, the opera that capped Rossini’s opera career before he retired in glory at 37, so this long-delayed rediscovery had something to prove. Co-produced with the Dutch National Opera and directed by Pierre Audi, it feels at once lavish and perfunctory, clotting the stage with stuff and people. The chorus of oppressed Swiss peasants in stylish white-muslin tunics move about like an army of puzzled kindergarteners following orders, while the principals try to make their way through the crowd. A sailboat’s skeletal hull hovers above the stage; Ikea lofts with gazebo roofs shuttle around it; immense, glowing light tubes rise and descend; aquarium rocks glide this way and that; and a stuffed stag hangs upside down from an airborne surfboard (or is it a sheet of ice?).
I love a little manic gimmickry in the right place, but if here it serves to express some idea about the opera, or about Rossini’s music, Audi keeps that connection under wraps. Singers clomp from one spot to another, guided by their marks but not by any character-driven sense of purpose. In Act IV, the Swiss rebels sing for minutes on end about a redemptive cache of weapons — and then, apparently forgetting to collect them, march off unarmed. It’s as if whenever Audi was puzzled about how to handle a dramatic challenge, he simply went online and ordered up another moving part. That sort of interpretive laziness does not bode well for the Park Avenue Armory, where he is now artistic director.
While the Met keeps digging itself deeper into a dramaturgical ditch, the music staff goes on doing what it does better than almost anyone: cast a difficult opera and make the score sound fully charged. Rossini mixes all the grand emotions — heroism, vengeance, noble love, patriotic fervor — with undimmed exuberance and charm. Even at its most desperate and tragic, the orchestra keeps grinding out genial oomp-chuck accompaniments and one how did he do that? melody after another. Conductor Fabio Luisi keeps it all in exquisite equilibrium, stiffening the rhythmic spine so that the rubatos and tender phrasing and vocal gymnastics can enjoy their elastic freedom. The Met Orchestra sounds born to virtually any operatic style, but there’s particular joy in hearing it slaloming through Rossini’s tight turns, or relaxing into a tune to savor its gratuitous gorgeousness. Donald Palumbo has the chorus so finely calibrated into a luminescent whole that its singing resembles an atmospheric phenomenon.
None of this — neither the distracted direction nor the focused playing — would matter if the Met had not fielded a shockingly superb cast. Gerald Finley sings the title role, the intrepid oarsman and sniper-grade archer with an extra arrow in his quiver for the black-clad despot. The baritone has made a career as a hyperintelligent musician rather than as a vocal ninja, and at the Met he’s given deeply etched performances in demanding operas like Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Adams’s Doctor Atomic. That experience serves him well in “Sois immobile,” in which an Abrahamic Tell, a righteous man and protective father, tells his Isaac-like son to stand perfectly still while he shoots an apple off his head. With a solo cello circling anxiously about his tune, Finley pours out the imploring, consoling phrases in a liquid legato.
The richness comes out in the smaller roles, including John Relyea as the demonic Gensler, tenor Sean Panikkar as his implacably sweet-voiced henchman, Janai Brugger as the disastrously costumed but plucky younger Tell, Jemmy. But much of the nearly five-hour opera actually belongs to a different character entirely, the lovelorn and self-pitying Arnold, sung with indefatigable sincerity by Bryan Hymel. His sound is plangent to the point of whininess and his first appearance might make you worry that the evening would seem endless. But as the arias keep coming, it gets braver, brassier, and more agile, so that at the point where many tenors would be gasping for silence, Hymel’s voice peals like an E-flat cornet gearing up for another set. He has a worthy match in Marina Rebeka’s Mathilde, the one character who gets to code-switch between black and white outfits, depending on whether she’s behaving like the governor’s daughter or the rebel’s woman. Rebeka mixes a clean, good-girl timbre with weightless technique and vulnerability. Her fitful Met career began five years ago with a secondary role in Don Giovanni; I hope by now the company realizes it’s been incubating a star.