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 [concert performance; sung in French]
William Tell – Michele Pertusi
Arnold Melchthal – John Osborn
Walter Furst – Matthew Rose
Melchthal – Frédéric Caton
Jemmy – Elena Xanthoudakis
Gesler – Nicolas Courjal
Rodolphe – Carlo Bosi
Ruodi – Celso Albelo
Leuthold – Mark Stone
Mathilde – Malyn Byström
Hedwige – Patricia Bardon
Huntsman – Davide Malvestio
Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 16 July, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
William Tell was the last of Rossini’s thirty-nine operas, written at the age of 37. It marked a distinctive break from his former operatic style. Written to a French libretto (later adapted into Rossini’s native Italian), William Tell was first staged in August 1829 in Paris. It was here given its first complete BBC Proms performance. Sure, the work was conceived for Paris where operatic tastes were different from Rossini’s Italian norm, but in terms of scale and method it is a piece hard to categorise. Despite living for another thirty-eight years, Rossini never again entered the operatic arena. The work itself shows remarkable anticipation of the works of Verdi, but there are also hints of Meyerbeer as well as of the mature outpourings of Bellini, Donizetti and Mercadante.
“Operatic taste” is an important aspect though, and today’s audiences confronted by this epic work can, after regular exposure to the more theatrically immediate works of Verdi, find the drama rather slow to ignite and the final resolution almost dutiful. Owing to the expansive rustic scene-setting and exposition of the political situation that Tell and his Swiss compatriots find themselves enmeshed in, the first Act is a slow burn. Indeed, it is only in the central acts that the political and romantic drama ignites, and even then the plot sometimes lacks immediacy. The character of Arnold takes a long time to jolt into revolutionary action following the death of his father, and whilst he has a musically sizzling conversion in the final Act we then only see him after his victory in a perfunctory episode before the rhapsodic ending. Likewise Tell himself has little opportunity to express and build his character in terms of aria and ensemble – this is a surprisingly declamatory role with few plum passages. Even the romantic female lead, Mathilde, can seem rather passive until her intervention in Act Three to save Tell’s innocent son Jemmy from execution. Her situation at the end of the work is hardly resolved. Does this lack of dramatic cohesion explain the complete opera’s comparative neglect, despite the Prom programme’s assertion that it is a “staple of the opera house”? Yet Royal Opera only staged the work once in the last century, in 1990, the previous production being in 1889! Its disregard is also perhaps due to the work making considerable demands on the performers as well as directors and designers. The in-Italian version has hardly fared any better.
At this Proms performance the musical demands could be assessed on their own terms in this superb presentation by the Rome-based Academy of Santa Cecilia under the authoritative and innate leadership of Antonio Pappano to demonstrate how with the right forces the difficulties can be overcome – dazzlingly. From its five-cello opening the famously familiar Overture courted excitement, the players then relishing Rossini’s striking evocations of nature in Act One. There was some wonderful horn-playing and the Royal Albert Hall’s spatial possibilities were fully utilised. The dance-episodes that occur throughout the score, so necessary for Parisian tastes at the time, were beautifully sprung and rarely threatened to outstay their welcome. Above all, Rossini’s inventively experimental orchestral writing was revealed by Pappano and his musicians in a reading of pace, dynamic variety and lucid textures.
The cast, similar to that on Pappano’s recently released EMI recording from Saint Cecilia – a worthy companion to the classic Lamberto Gardelli recording, also EMI, that boasts Caballé, Gedda and Bacquier – was also amazingly assured. From Celso Albelo’s mellifluous vocalisation of the weak fisherman Ruodi’s lyrical harp-accompanied song the singing just got better and better. In the title role Michele Pertusi (it’s Gerald Finley on the recording) smouldered away very effectively – his voice having the right bite and grit for this visionary character and also the moment to display lyricism and tenderness in ‘Sois immobile’ with its cello opening and unsettled major/minor tonality. Malin Byström is the possessor of a voice of allure and purity with reserves of power allied to technical dexterity. ‘Sombre forêt’ showed her ability to spin out long lines expressively, and she also kept her recitative-like passages interesting. The Act Two duet with John Osborn’s Arnold was terrific; the most obviously Italianate moment of the score. Osborn was in superb form in perhaps the hardest role – he has to be an ardent if guilty lover, a remorseful son, and a reluctant then-fiery revolutionary rabble-rouser. The vocal demands are immense. Osborn met them with unfailing lyricism in the first two acts, and then the fiendish ‘Asile héréditaire’ with its thrilling cabaletta ending – surely an episode Verdi had in mind when writing certain scenes for the tenor in Il trovatore – was delivered with a panache that electrified the audience.
In the crucial if minor female roles the bright-voiced Elena Xanthoudakis and the luscious tones of Patricia Bardon were heard to great effect. Likewise Matthew Rose and Mark Stone made the most of their brief moments. There were a good pair of ‘baddies’ too – Nicolas Courjal’s incisive, sappy and charismatic baritone making a great character out of the sadistic Gessler. The chorus-writing is not Rossini at his best in terms of variety, but it was brought off with freshness and idiomatic clarity.