Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Guillaume Tell - Opera in four acts (1829).
Guillaume Tell - Gerald Finley (baritone); Arnold - John Osborne (tenor); Walter Furst - Matthew Rose (bass); Melcthal - Frederic Caton (tenor); Jemmy, Tell’s son – Elena Xanthoudakis (soprano); Gesler, Governor of the Cantons of Schwyz and Uri – Carlo Cigni (bass); Rodolphe - Carlo Bosi (tenor); Mathilde, Princess of the House of Habsburg – Malin Byström (soprano); Hedwige, Tell’s wife - Marie-Nicole Lemieux (soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Academia di Santa Cecilia, Rome/Antonio Pappano
rec. live, performances on 18, 20-21 December 2010, Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome. DDD. Libretto included
EMI CLASSICS 0 28826 2 [3 CDs: 74.16 + 79.26 + 54.33]
In the first years of his compositional life, 1811-1819, Rossini composed and presented a total of thirty operas. Like Bach, Haydn and others before him he did re-cycle some music between these operas. He also made major revisions to several of them for different theatres, providing happy ending to tragedies as with Tancredi for example. It was a hectic creative pace. By comparison Rossini’s last operas were written over a more leisurely nine years with three of these works being major revisions, in French, of earlier Italian operas. In 1828, when he began composing Guillaume Tell, Rossini was 36 years old and following the death of Beethoven he was the world’s best-known composer. It was to be his 39th and last opera despite his living until his 76th year. As Director of the Théâtre Italien, Paris, Rossini had a guaranteed annuity for life. In addition to this basic financial security he had earned considerable sums at the 1822 Vienna Rossini Festival presented by Domenico Barbaja. This impresario had originally invited the composer to Naples and presented six of his operas between February and July of that year. On his visit to London the following year, Rossini himself presented eight of his own operas and sang duets with the King. His marriage to his long-term mistress, Isabella Colbran, also brought a considerable dowry after she inherited property. With good counsel from banker friends, Rossini had enough money to live in style. Many have speculated that given his liking for social activities he saw no reason to continue the strained and hectic life he had perforce been leading. There was also the question of his mental resilience and physical state. Certainly his marriage was not successful and he and Colbran went their separate ways. In the 1830s his chronic gonorrhoea was a major health problem to him, exacerbated by frequent, and futile, stringent and painful treatments.
Whilst Rossini had hinted at possible retirement during the composition of Guillaume Tell the opera shows no signs of waning musical creativity or capacity and concern for detail. On the contrary, not only is it by far his longest opera, a complete performance lasting nearly four hours, it incorporates significant orchestral innovations and a closer match between music and libretto than even he had achieved before. It could be argued that Tell constitutes a massive step in romanticism unmatched in France or Italy until Verdi’s later works and in Germany by Wagner thirty years later. The composer took excessive care over the opera’s libretto, casting and composition. The work is based on Schiller’s last completed drama of 1804. Rossini’s first choice of librettist was Eugene Scribe who had provided the text for his previous opera, Le Comte Ory, but he preferred other subjects. Rossini then turned to the academic Victor-Joseph Étienne, librettist of Spontini’s La Vestale, and who had transformed the libretto of his Naples opera seria Mose in Egitto (5 March 1818) into the French Moïse et Pharon premiered at the Paris Opéra on 26 March 1827. Étienne presented Rossini with a four-act libretto of seven hundred verses! Appalled, maybe even overwhelmed, Rossini called on the younger Hippolyte-Louis-Florent Bis who reduced the work to more manageable proportions and re-wrote the highly praised second act. Rossini asked Armand Marrast to recast the vital section at the end of act 2 where the representatives of the three Cantons assemble and agree to revolt against the tyranny of Governor Gesler (CD 2 trs15-20). This is a scene that draws from Rossini some of his most memorable music in an opera of much melodic and dramatic felicity.
As well as the greater complexity of the orchestration the tessitura of the role of Arnold gave the scheduled tenor, Nouritt, difficulties and after the premiere he started to omit the great act four-aria, Asile héréditaire, and its cabaletta (CD 3 trs12-13). Soon further reductions and mutilations were inflicted on the score. Within a year it was presented in three abbreviated acts. Further insults followed when act 2 only was given as a curtain-raiser to ballet performances. An often reproduced anecdote relates how Rossini met the director of the Opéra on the street who told him they were going to perform act 2 of Tell that night, to which Rossini was supposed to have replied What the whole of it?
The opera was first presented in Italian translation at Lucca in 1831 and the San Carlo in Naples in 1833. On record the Italian version with Pavarotti and Mirella Freni under Chailly recorded in 1978 (Decca) has vied with the 1973 EMI recording in French with Gedda, Bacquier and Caballé under Gardelli’s baton and which was reissued at mid price earlier in 2011 (see review). Both recordings are recommendable featuring as they do a full text and tenors with good upward extensions although in Gedda’s case on the EMI recording without much grace of phrase. Pavarotti who later had a disc entitled King of the High Cs, declined to make his La Scala debut as Arnold, claiming it would ruin his voice. A tenor friend of James Joyce is quoted as reporting that the role of Arnold required 456 Gs, 93 A flats, 54 B flats, 15 Bs, 19Cs and 2 C sharps (The Bel Canto Operas. Charles Osborne. Methuen 1994 p.132). I cannot vouch for the accuracy of that estimate, and certainly not in this slightly abbreviated performance of the Critical Edition score by M Elizabeth C. Bartlett, but certainly the role demands an ability to rise up the stave with full tone and dramatic intensity on a regular basis. The Italian lyric tenor Giuseppe Sabbatini sings the role in the Orfeo live 1998 recording conducted by Fabio Luisi and also sung in French (see review).
As with Don Carlos for Verdi, this opera is my most loved Rossini score, both coincidentally the longest of each composer’s works and both composed for the Paris Opéra. Partly because of that I have taken somewhat longer to come to my conclusions over this issue with several re-playings. Whilst Pappano starts at a hectic pace to give a vibrant overture, a piece that was the staple of every orchestra in the days when a concert comprised an overture and concerto in the first half and a symphony in the second, his tempi are not wholly consistent nor convincing. Add a variable acoustic, seemingly dry at times and reverberant at others, and the applause that could easily have been omitted, and I had early doubts as to whether my love would last the pace. With one French language rival, Gardelli’s, giving the Troupenas edition of the score in full, Pappano chops major chunks of the last act; this with twenty-five minutes or more space on the third CD, my love was waning. Much would depend on the singers.
The singing cast in this opera tends to depend in some measure on the capacity of the tenor singing the role of Arnold and its vocal challenges. In many ways I was satisfied with Sabbatini on the Orfeo issue whilst recognising he was not perfect, his tightly focused voice lacking some ping. On this recording the American John Osborne has a much more mellifluous and freer tone, floating a gentle head voice for his peak note and meeting the other vocal hurdles with élan to go alongside tastefully phrased singing, far superior to Gedda’s often forced tone. The eponymous role has no arias as such but a forceful well-characterised voice is vital to make a suitably dramatic impact on the performance narrative. Not as full toned as Hampson on Orfeo, Finley is a younger sounding Tell than either rival, but is a tower of strength in bringing to life the evolving drama in all its twists and turns, his French noticeably idiomatic and comparable to the francophone Bacquier. The Australian Elena Xanthoudakis in the trouser role of Jemmy, on whose head the apple has to sit awaiting his, or its fate, is another vocal strength in both quality of singing and characterisation. Overhanging the role of Mathilde, Princess of the House of Habsburg, whose affiliations are tested by love, is the performance of Caballé of the earlier EMI set and whose quality is outstanding. Compared with Caballé, Malin Byström is in a much lower league in both beauty of her singing and characterisation; championship at best, certainly not premiership. The minor roles are variable with some incisive characterisations such as Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Tell’s wife mixed with the odd blusterer. The chorus is simply outstanding as only Italian choruses on their mettle can be, even when singing French.
The booklet has a libretto side by side with a multilingual translation, the extensive and informative introductory essay, and Pappano’s background to the recording and his knowledge of the opera, is likewise translated.
Robert J Farr
see also review by Gavin Dixon
Some virtues, but does not replace Gardelli’s earlier EMI version in my affections. A pity it is not complete.