Guillaume Tell – Opera in four acts to a libretto by Etienne de Jouy & Hippolyte Louis-Florent Bis, with additions by Armand Marrast & Adolphe Crémieux, based on the play by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller [sung in French]
Guillaume Tell – Gerald Finley
Hedwige, his wife – Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Jemmy, his son – Elena Xanthoudakis
Mathilde, Princess of the House of Habsburg – Malin Byström
Arnold Melcthal – John Osborn
Melcthal, Arnold’s father – Frédéric Caton
Walter Furst – Matthew Rose
Gesler, Governor of the cantons of Schwyz and Uri – Carlo Cigni
Rodolphe, commander of Gesler’s archers – Carlo Bosi
Ruodi, a fisherman – Celso Abelo
Leuthold, a herdsman – Dawid Kimberg
Huntsman – Davide Malvestio
Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Recorded 16, 18 & 20 October and 18, 20 & 21 December 2010 at Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: August 2011
CD No: EMI 0 28826 2 (3 CDs)
Duration: 3 hours 28 minutes
Time was when serious musicians would look down on Rossini’s tragic operas. He was seen as composing to a formula, often in a hurry and not immune to self-plagiarism. Semiramide, Ermione and the rest were clearly ephemeral, not intended to survive beyond their original commercial context. The composer’s abandonment of his operatic career at the age of only thirty-seven in favour of what has been seen as a further forty-year life of idleness has also damaged his reputation. Opere buffe were held in greater favour. Beethoven epitomised the belief that Rossini’s talents lay in comic opera and urged him in 1822 to “write more Barbers”. But even those who dismiss the non-comic Italian operas are at least more reserved about Guillaume Tell. It was the only original opera of Rossini’s Paris years, the others either being revisions of earlier works or incorporating music from existing operas. The fact that it was written for Paris should count in its favour. When Rossini landed there Paris was already Europe’s leading operatic centre, with orchestral standards and stage facilities superior to those of the theatres in which Rossini had worked in Italy and able to attract the most accomplished singers.
This recording suggests that Guillaume Tell represents the fulfilment of Rossini’s years in Paris between 1824 and 1829. If thereafter the great operatic voice was silent perhaps he realised he could produce nothing to match it in epic scale or musical invention. Of course few will have heard the work, certainly in its complete form. Its extravagant scenic and choral demands and the need for a voice in the role of Arnold which is of heroic size and flexibility have restricted its appearances in the operatic calendar. When giants of the stage tackled the role of Arnold, such as Giovanni Martinelli in the 1920s at the Metropolitan, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi in the 1930s and (rather less gigantic) Mario Filippeschi in a recording in the 1950s, it was as Guglielmo Tell – in Italian and with substantial cuts.
EMI recorded the French version in 1972 under Lamberto Gardelli and with a cosmopolitan cast, an admirable investment. Decca’s Italian recording seven years later utilised the big names of that generation (Freni, Pavarotti and Milnes).Of the commercial releases the single disc of highlights with the Spanish/French tenor Tony Poncet is interesting; pint-sized he may have been but his top notes were doused in squillo. The same could be said of Chris Merritt, who had a brief vogue either side of 1990. His basically baritonal sound was surmounted by a bright upper extension. Regrettably, although he did sing the work in French in the opera house, his recording under Riccardo Muti and the associated DVD are in Italian.
The opera does deserve to be treated as a special case. It is undeniably a progressive work. Take the Overture, a genre for which Rossini had seemingly mastered a successful method. That is replaced by a structure which was revolutionary for its time with its five-part cello introduction, a storm at least as good as anything Wagner was to write, a ranz des vaches consisting of memorable dialogue between woodwind soloists and, of course, the finale with the galloping rhythm which is so familiar. Some of the numbers look back to the static conventions which Rossini had himself invented, but others indicate the way forward, such as the daring swerve into G flat when Arnold thinks of Mathilde in his first duet with Tell. The andantino of the Act Two trio anticipates early or middle period Verdi, the female choruses in Nabucco owe something to their counterparts in Guillaume Tell. The cello part in ‘Sois immobile’ is not a patterned accompaniment but an obbligato in its own right. Antonio Pappano is right to see this as a forerunner of Amelia’s ‘Morrò, ma prima in grazia’ from Un ballo in maschera.
The aria for Mathilde is much more than an orthodox romance. The music which presages her entry is imaginatively scored and fragments of it continue to be used during her recitative. The sweeping, yearning phrases on the violins and the drum roll which precedes each verse suggest an intensity of feeling which Rossini never achieved elsewhere. This general advance is not uninterrupted. In the farewell scene for the two lovers the overlong E minor passage for Mathilde is undistinguished and in its last two pages Rossini reverts to arbitrary extended florid music for the soprano. We could be back in the world of Semiramide. Otherwise Rossini seems to be escaping from the patterns which he himself invented. The first Mathilde/Arnold duet is a conventional piece of work on the whole, the three-part structure being adhered to. The final section is in habitual thirds but the staccato markings for the words “un doux présage me permet le bonheur” in the andante are an original feature. The way in which the recitative in the market-place scene turns into a short trio with chorus as Jemmy insists on sharing his father’s fate is another impressive idea. Some have argued that the length of the first Act unbalances the work. Perhaps there is a little too much scene-setting before the first proper action (the escape of Leuthold across the lake through Tell’s gubernatory skills). Schiller gets straight down to business. Nevertheless the final ensemble ‘Que du ravage’ has powerful impetus.
The titular hero is surprisingly not in musical terms the most important character. Tell has no extended aria (‘Sois immobile’ lasts little more than two-and-a-half minutes). His character development is mostly portrayed in ensemble rather than in solo. As the fisherman heedlessly serenades his beloved in the opening scene, Tell broods on his homeland’s lack of freedom in austere, resentful asides. In the following duet with Arnold his contempt for the latter’s reluctance to commit himself to the Swiss cause is expressed in his contribution to their snappy exchanges, the peremptory interruptions and the furious, plunging phrases from first a high F, then a high G at “Mais je connais”. Dogmatic nationalism and distrust of Arnold continue to underlie his part in the trio. Only in the confrontation with Gesler do softer human characteristics emerge.
Pappano’s championing of the work is thoroughly endorsed by the live performances used for this recording. There is nothing apologetic about his treatment of the decorative parts of the score and he directs the choral passages with full awareness of their dramatic worth. His handling of the orchestral accompaniment animates the scenes of tension. The Act One finale is excitingly driven, that of Act Two with the stealthy arrival of its participants, is well paced, the choral-might not let loose until the last moment. The conclusion of the whole work has totally fitting radiance. The choral and orchestral forces of Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia support his concept of the work wholeheartedly. The recording faithfully reflects the atmosphere of the concerts from which it was made. Applause is sparing but enthusiastic.
John Osborn is the latest bel canto tenor to emerge. He does not sing with the same confidence in alt as do Florez or Brownlee (his C sharps in the second Act trio are a bit desperate) but the tone is attractively plaintive and the interpretation of Arnold’s dilemma sympathetic. Osborn’s aria is beautifully restrained, the rise to the high C taken in a perfectly controlled mezza voce, the final notes bringing forth a gushing of emotion: a truly elegiac response by an intelligent artist. The cabaletta betrays some vocal tiredness. Nicolai Gedda’s performance for Gardelli, recorded at a time when the climate for such music was much less favourable, is still a remarkable achievement from a supreme operatic artist in his considerable prime.
In the small role of the Fisherman Celso Albelo offers promise of sustaining this line of tenors, once so thin on the ground. As Jemmy, Elena Xanthoudakis, third-prize winner in the 2008 Operalia, stands out strongly as the top line in ensembles and bolsters his father’s courage when it seems on the verge of faltering. Carlo Cigni makes much of little as Gesler while as his henchman Rodolphe Carlo Bosi rants malignantly. Malin Byström faces fierce competition from Montserrat Caballé as Mathilde. She produces consistently luxuriant tone, a little veiled to begin with, opening out more clearly after the aria. Her technical accomplishment in terms of legato and florid singing is certainly comparable to that of the Spanish soprano, even if as yet her characterisation falls short.
One wonders how old Tell is and how that affects the casting of the role. Pappano’s choice for the BBC Prom performance was the 46-year-old Michele Pertusi, while EMI’s 1972 Tell, Gabriel Bacquier, was 48. It comes as a surprise that Gerald Finley (50 in 2010) is the oldest of the three. He is the most baritonal in timbre and polished in style yet I find myself preferring Bacquier. It is not a question that he enunciates the French text as a native speaker – Finley is an impeccable linguist – more that he brings greater flavour to the character throughout the opera. Finley seems an idealist from the upper classes, Bacquier comes from solid peasant stock. He is obdurate in his nationalism and quite merciless in his distrust of and intolerance towards Arnold. Vocally he leaves nothing to be desired. Finley has just a shade too much nobility.The earlier recording is super-complete: even an aria for Jemmy probably never performed is included as an appendix. Pappano omits Edwige’s prayer ‘Toi, qui du faible es l’espérance’ and the trio in the final scene, making the engagement of the talented Marie-Nicole Lemieux something of an extravagance.
It is arguably an advantage of the intimidating demands of this work that it is rarely recorded. At least it can never be treated as just ‘another’ William Tell but will always be regarded as a major enterprise to which suitable resources should be devoted. They certainly are in this latest case.