- Associated Press - Friday, December 10, 2010

ZURICH (AP) - Its composer was Italian, its plot is based on a German play, and its libretto is in French. So it’s fitting that “William Tell” has become known as the unofficial national opera of _ Switzerland.

In fact, the diversity of the multilingual nation seems to have been one of director Adrian Marthaler’s inspirations in his alternately charming and irritating new staging of Rossini’s last opera. The production, the first ever presented by the Zurich Opera, concluded its season’s run on Tuesday night.

Also showing this season in Zurich _ Verdi’s “I Masnadieri” and Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West.”

“Tell,” which premiered in 1829, is filled with noble, impassioned music, befitting the Friedrich Schiller play about the unification of the Swiss people who rise up under Tell’s leadership to overthrow the Austrian despot Gessler.

Since Tell is a middle-aged husband and father, the opera has a young romantic hero, Arnold _ and he is one of the main reasons the work is infrequently staged: The part is a killer. From his first aria, Arnold must repeatedly sail up to high C, and he stays in the stratosphere most of the evening.

Luckily, Zurich had tenor Antonino Siragusa for the role. Possessing a powerful, penetrating voice with dead-on accuracy in the highest register, Siragusa also scaled back for some captivating soft singing in his duet with his sweetheart, Matilda. The latter role was sung by soprano Eva Mei, whose appealing voice showed worrisome signs of shrillness on top and thinning-out at the bottom. Bass-baritone Michele Pertusi was a stalwart Tell, and soprano Martina Jankova was delightful as Tell’s daughter Jemmy, who survives having an apple shot off her head. (In the legend and the libretto it’s Tell’s son, but the part is written for soprano voice.)

Musical values were high in the orchestra pit, where Gianluigi Gelmetti made a strong case for the score as one of Rossini’s finest.

During the overture (which includes that “Lone Ranger” theme), Marthaler had the curtain rise to show a variety of modern-day Swiss citizens, of all ethnic stripes, either gazing at a beautiful mountain vista or just strolling by.

Though the opera is set in the 14th century, the principals all wore modern dress (Tell sported a baggy argyle sweater), and the set was filled with references to contemporary life. In Act 1, products associated with Switzerland were mounted on pedestals _ a block of cheese, an Swiss Army knife, even a bar of Toblerone chocolate. When Gessler’s henchmen terrorized the populace, they took an ax to the candy and hacked it into pieces.

This combination of serious and whimsical didn’t always work so well.

At the end of Act 2, when fighters from several cantons pledge rebellion in a thrilling chorus, those modern-day observers strolled by again. It was a needless distraction that undermined the emotion.

At other times, a figure representing Rossini and carrying the opera’s score wandered in and out of the action _ for what purpose was never clear.

There was an inspired touch for the finale, a harp-accompanied hymn to freedom. Marthaler had the curtain descend while soloists and choristers dispersed to various parts of the opera house, so that when they sang the entire theater filled with rejoicing. The curtain rose again to show a snow-crusted model of Switzerland gliding across the stage.

Next night, the company presented another opera new to Zurich and also adapted from a Schiller play _ Verdi’s “I Masnadieri” (“The Bandits”).

This time it’s the soprano role of Amalia that’s difficult to cast _ Verdi wrote it in 1847 for the “Swedish nightingale” Jenny Lind, a coloratura specialist.

The opera’s relative lack of popularity is due in part to the plot, which is unremittingly bleak, even by Verdian standards. Francesco, a nobleman jealous of his older brother Carlo, has turned their father against him and driven the old man mad. Carlo, meanwhile, joins a band of brigands (who prattle on about their love of mayhem in a bouncy chorus that Gilbert and Sullivan would parody 30 years later in “The Pirates of Penzance.”)

Francesco tries to force Carlo’s sweetheart, Amalia, to marry him, but she runs off with Carlo, who stabs her to death rather than see her tainted by a life of crime.

Soprano Isabel Rey struggled as Amalia and, perhaps wisely, did not take the high note at the end of her Act 2 cabaletta. A last-minute substitute for the indisposed Fabio Sartori, tenor Massimiliano Pisapia filled in respectably as Carlo, while baritone Thomas Hampson made for a smooth villain when he wasn’t pushing his voice too hard.

Benjamin Bernheim, a young, fresh-sounding tenor, made a strong impression in a supporting role.

The singers weren’t helped by conductor Adam Fischer’s tendency to let the tempos droop, sapping energy from a score that should throb with vitality.

Director Guy Joosten staged the action effectively, using a turntable for quick scene changes. There were minimal props in the first half, just a bed and a table and chair, along with a portrait gallery to which Francesco is eager to add his own likeness as lord of the manor.

In the second half, a single set depicted a snowy forest with a ruined shack and looked like a vision of nuclear winter, appropriate to the dire denouement.

On Thursday night, the company revived Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West,” just one day shy of the 100th anniversary of the work’s world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera. Known as the first “spaghetti Western,” the opera is one of Puccini’s few where the heroine survives at the end _ Minnie, the saloonkeeper, saves the reformed bandit Dick Johnson from the hangman’s noose and then heads off into the sunset with him.

The handsome production by David Pountney pays homage to the silent film era of Westerns, with movie titles to frame each act and grainy old footage of a chase scene played during Johnson’s offstage capture in Act 3.

A split-level set allows some striking images, such as Minnie twirling about in delight on the upper level after Johnson has taught her a simple dance step in the saloon below. And the final tableau is as poignant as it should be: The miners stand dejectedly in darkness below as Minnie and Dick walk off above them, singing “Addio, California.” (They’re actually supposed to ride off, but there are no horses in this production.)

Soprano Emily Magee was a lovely Minnie, feisty and dignified at the same time. It cost her some effort to reach the role’s many high notes, but reach them she did. And in the all-important middle register her voice came through clear and strong.

Tenor Jose Cura has a bad habit of lunging at notes, but he delivered when it counted most _ in his climactic solo in Act 2 after he has confessed his identity to Minnie, and in his brief but haunting Act 3 aria. As Sheriff Jack Rance, whose love Minnie rejects, baritone Carlo Guelfi projected a large but raspy sound. Most of them time it fit his snarling character pretty well.

Conductor Massimo Zanetti emphasized drama over some of the delicate orchestral effects in the score, but it made for an exciting evening.



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