Stage Director: Opera-Theatre-Musicals
Production of Rossini’s WILLIAM TELL at Wichita Grand Opera directed by Chuck Hudson: February 2014
The source material for the opera WILLIAM TELL is a play of the same name by Friedrich Schiller. The variety of Father and Son relationships in the play and how they relate to the idea of Patrimony is evoked very often in the libretto of the opera with the word Patrie. Schiller’s characters criticize the distant Austrian Emperor for not acting like the Father of the Country or the Father of the People. Like a Shakespearean play we learn that “the wrong man is on the throne”, which is worsened because he is an “absent Father” and his local representative is corrupt, setting up the political setting for the action.
On the family level, Melcthal and Arnold are Father and Son. Old Melcthal has been standing up to the Austrian rule for some time and is pursued for citing insurrection. Young Melcthal (our Arnold) openly defies the Austrian soldiers when they try to steal his cattle and, like Leuthold in the opera, kills one of them with his axe. We know all about cattle rustling in the American West and how vehemently it would be defended, and so our production maintains this backstory for the Melcthals’ first entrance pursued by Austrian soldiers, providing William a reason to hide them both. We also maintain Schiller’s violent end to Melcthal in our staging which ultimately trigger’s Arnold to taking action. Arnold’s father is killed by the invading Austrians and William’s son is almost killed because of this occupation, creating an interesting symmetry for both characters and their reasons for “rebellion.”
Although not a Father-Son relationship, Leuthold is a Father who defends his child with an act of rebellion—his Greek Choric speech about the rape of is daughter sets up the kind of occupation the Swiss have been enduring under the Austrians for 100 years. Our production explores this cruelty and suffering further in the Dances of Act 3 where the female Dancers represent the local Swiss girls dancing for Mathilde and the male Dancers are Austrian soldiers who pervert and manipulate the women’s dance in a public way.
And of course we have the William Tell-Jemmy central action which brings me to the repetition of another word in the libretto: orgeuil. It is a word used by my great mentor Marcel Marceau in technique exercises called the CONVENTIONS OF CHARACTER among what he terms “The Mixed Emotions”: it is more than Pride and less than Vanity… Haughtiness is a way of saying it in English. In Greek Mythology, the great sin that must be cleansed is called HUBRIS—human vanity and pride. Gesler is as much a villain in the opera as he is in the play, however we do get more backstory in the play: he and William meet when Gesler first arrives from Austria to become governor. He was traveling with his party and found himself lost in the woods unable to get back to his escort. He was in a panic when he met William who easily directed him back to his men. Gesler’s vanity never allows him to live down that humiliation—helping us to justify why he singles-out William and why he acts so cruelly with him. His mask of power is there to cover up his inner weakness. Gesler is much more suited for the Hapsburg Courts back in Austria than as Governor of this wild territory. His betrothal to Mathilde is clearly a political marriage furthering his connection to the Hapsburg power-center.
While preparing the show, I was doing some side reading that had nothing to do with WILLIAM TELL, which of course means I happened upon a gem of an image that focused the William-Jemmy relationship, and which harkens back to the Father-Son-Patrimony imagery driving the Schiller play. William seems to be working along a continuum of Strength-Weakness in his Sphere of Political Influence and Sphere of Power to actually take political action. He is CONFIDENT he can take action, but he is almost too “haughty” about this— seen by his reaction to Ruodi’s song of love in Act 1, with Arnold in Acts 1 and 2, with the chorus in general, and especially when saying “peut importe” about the possibility of losing his family in the struggle for freedom when Arnold warns him of the risks they run if they take action against the Austrians. William places the safety of his country above that of his family propelling him toward the famously awaited scene where he is forced to be the hand that will sacrifice his own son.
In The Poetics, Aristotle tells us that every great piece of art is driven by Sex, Death, and Politics and so is our opera. In the mythological language, Archery demands a far-seeing Vision into the distance or into the future. Archers like Apollo and Artemis have precise visions that cut through the world to the distant future like an arrow. The British folk hero Robin Hood can split the arrow on the target, and we have William Tell and the apple balanced on his son’s head. William has a political vision for Switzerland and his actions place his son’s life “in the balance.” The Old Testament term that is translated as sin is a term from archery that means “to miss the mark.” This does not sound too serious until we realize that if William “misses the mark” his son will die. If William continues with his sin of Hubris, his children have no future. William loses his confidence because he could kill his son, but Jemmy has Faith in his Father. That Faith restores William’s Confidence and that Confidence allows him to prove his Skill and to succeed in realizing his Vision. William KNOWS he can realize his vision of freedom. Jemmy KNOWS he can participate in realizing this vision. The TRUST of Son to Father here is amazing, and proves that William Tell is a GOOD FATHER…and can be the best Father of his Country.
Although the women in the play are far stronger in their revolutionary actions, the women in the opera are much like the women in Peter Grimes who must suffer the actions the men create, maintaining the hearth while the men are away battling the sea or battling an army, providing the cultural backbone for the society. Both Japanese and Greek aphorisms tell us “the man is the head of the household and the woman is the neck,” and this is true in our opera as well. Hedwige fears for the safety of her husband and her son, and yet she supports them both when they confront oppression. Jemmy acts like William’s son as soon as Rodolphe enters, helping to prepare us for the famous Apple scene later, and proving that Jemmy is just as prepared to die for his freedom as his Father is. We have even given Jemmy a small crossbow to carry so he can be just like his Dad! Hedwige provides the maternal element to all of this Patrie, including her duties as Alpha Female during the wedding ceremony and the leadership she provides in the prayer vigil before the storm.
This brings us to the Love Story, based on those timeless Shakespearean pairings of Pyramus and Thisbe or Romeo and Juliet: two young people from two warring countries meet and fall in love. It is not known how long Mathilde has been in Switzerland herself; we choose that she has lived there long enough to have fallen in love with Arnold and for the women of the Chorus to trust that she will bring peace by Law and not by Power. When we first see Mathilde in our production she is leading two Borzoi through the forest on a hunt—these are Russian Wolf Hounds which could be owned only by Royalty on pain of death. Like them she is regal, beautiful, loyal, far-sighted, and can fight to protect her home. She must have enough of a political voice to be able to balance Gesler’s quest for power by asserting the law and to have a local reputation for these honorable qualities. Mathilde is not the City-Dweller Gesler is since she is clearly comfortable being alone in the forest where Gesler is not. Perhaps then, Mathilde is “THE LAND” in that Arthurian sense and Gesler has recently arrived from Austria to marry her and conquer that land, furthering the image of Austrian Occupation raping the Swiss land and people. By the end of the show, Mathilde will have grown from Maiden in love to a Woman in love to a Royal in a position of strength to the Mother of a new Country.
Indeed, WILLIAM TELL is a masterpiece!