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Putting the chorus centre stage in Guillaume Tell

How Rossini’s foregrounding of the people radically changed the balance of drama in the opera.

By Sarah Hibberd (Royal Opera Writer in Residence)

19 June 2015 at 10.10am | 5 Comments

Traditionally at Rossini’s time, the chorus was expected to take part only in self-contained numbers, and to stand still in blocks on the stage. But already in Le Siège de Corinthe – Rossini’s 1826 adaptation of Maometto II for Paris – the chorus engaged in dialogue with their leader, in dramatic recitative. In Guillaume Tell different factions of an expanded chorus – Austrian soldiers, Swiss villagers (men, women, children) – become active partners in the drama, singing more demanding vocal lines and moving about the stage with purpose. The Rütli oath scene in Act II is a good example of this. One witness to the first performance suggested the chorus were tripping over their words and lacked ensemble, some too terrified to sing and unsure where to move – but they clearly improved as the performances went on. Rossini’s expansion of choral passages (at the expense of solo numbers) caused Berlioz to complain about the resulting aural monotony, but it meant that the people became a decisive character in the drama, and a new kind of politically charged relationship between people and protagonists – hinted at in Le Siège – was established.

During Guillaume Tell’s opening scenes, the main protagonists are presented as members of the crowd, illuminated only briefly. As the opera unfolds, they gradually emerge as the people’s representatives. The crowd magnifies the dilemmas of the individual, the individual brings the public conflict into focus. Director Damiano Michieletto has promoted this organic relationship by planting actors among the chorus. They have been attending the soloists’ rehearsals as figures with whom the characters can interact physically. In Act I, for example, the actors manhandle the (drunk) fisherman Ruodi during his solo, and when Leuthold appears after killing a soldier, they help him and defend him from the Austrian soldiers who arrive shortly afterwards. In a later rehearsal, when the whole chorus is present for these scenes, these actors melt into the crowd, but they help to sustain visually the natural and organic relationship between the protagonists and the people.

In addition, Damiano treats the chorus like the soloists: he explains their motivation during a particular scene, their feelings about the other characters and the larger political situation, and how these might translate into their movements as individuals. He encourages a blend of planned and instinctive movement: simple, strong, directed gestures are favoured to preserve visual clarity, but realism is also important. With so many people on stage at one time, consideration needs to be given as to how best to guide the audience’s attention. At one level the chorus are surrogate spectators for the audience, giving us cues where to look and how to react, and so their movements need to be ordered. At another level they are part of the overall stage picture, which is often intended to look chaotic. In the Act III finale, when Tell is condemned to the island fortress across the lake after shooting the apple from Jemmy’s head, the Swiss and Austrian sections of the chorus are set against each other, and the soloists arranged across the front of the stage in relation to their chorus compatriots, conveying the complexity and tension of the drama at a glance, against a thrilling burst of vocal power from all sides.

As I suggested in a recent post, Parisian audiences may well have identified with the Swiss villagers in Tell, having recently suffered the humiliation of (brief) foreign occupation following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo – and harbouring noble feelings about justice and freedom. But to what extent does the success of Tell depend on audience identification with the people? Can a modern audience empathise with such generalised feelings? Does the situation need to be updated to a more recent political event? Perhaps the establishment of an organic relationship between soloists and chorus means that it simply works on its own terms as a human drama.

Ultimately, Rossini’s radical approach was not followed through by other composers. Yes, the chorus becomes a crucial character in later operas – the Scottish refugees in Verdi’s Macbeth are clear descendants. But even in later grand operas, singers – and audiences – demanded that the musical focus return to the soloists.

Sarah Hibberd is Associate Professor in the Department of Music at the University of NottinghamFind out more about her association with The Royal Opera as Writer in Residence and read other posts in this series.

Guillaume Tell runs 29 June–17 July 2015. Tickets are still available. The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 5 July 2015. Find your nearest cinema.

By Sarah Hibberd (Royal Opera Writer in Residence)

19 June 2015 at 10.10am

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged by Damiano Michieletto, Chorus, grand opera, Guillaume Tell, history, Production, Sarah Hibberd, writer in residence

This article has 5 comments

  1. Woska responded on 21 June 2015 at 10:33pm Reply

    Fascinating aspect, thank You. As a little bit of Rossini addict, I'll be in the cinema here in Hamburg (Germany).

    • Sarah Hibberd responded on 24 June 2015 at 10:48pm

      I'm a Rossini addict too, but the chorus and orchestra in Tell add a new dimension. I hope you enjoy it in Hamburg!

  2. Tony Boyd-Williams responded on 23 June 2015 at 2:57pm Reply

    Fascinating indeed, Sarah. Thanks again. It is rewarding to recall that the WNO 1960's productions of Tell and La battaglia were both directed by John Moody who certainly put the chorus centre stage.
    Other opera directors who work this way are Laurent Pelly. Andrei Serban ,Stefan Herheim and Jean -Romain Vesperini, not forgetting of course Damino Michelielto's approach to the chorus in Il Barbiere Di Siviglia.

    It will be very exciting to see his chorus work in Tell!

    • Sarah Hibberd responded on 24 June 2015 at 10:51pm

      Thank you for those references, Tony. You're right that there are other directors who are interested in working with choruses - I know that Damiano has particularly enjoyed that aspect of this production, and hope he might be tempted to work on some more of these big Parisian works.

  3. Tony Boyd-Williams responded on 27 June 2015 at 3:59pm Reply

    You are more than welcome ,Sarah.. Let us indeed hope that Damiano will work on some of the big Parisian works as you suggest..Meanwhile ,the chorus work in Tell promises to be a fascinating and exciting aspect of Tell.

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