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Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Guillaume Tell (in French)
Guillaume Tell – Andrew Foster-Williams (baritone)
Arnold – Michael Spyres (tenor)
Mathilde – Judith Howarth (soprano)
Furst/Melchthal – Nahuel di Pierro (bass)
Jemmy – Tara Stafford (soprano)
Hedwige – Alessandra Volpe (mezzo)
Gesler – Raffaele Facciolà (bass)
Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań
Virtuosi Brunensis/Antonio Fogliani
rec. live, Trinkhalle, Bad Wildbad, Germany, July 2013
NAXOS 8.660363-66 [4 CDs: 74:59 + 55:10 + 64:51 + 58:01]

This recording won’t be anyone’s first choice for William Tell, in whatever language, but it does capture what must have been a memorable performance at the Rossini in Wildbad Festival. Its chief virtue, in fact, is its live-ness. Much more than Pappano’s live concert version, this is a performance that lives and breathes the air of the opera house. That brings disadvantages in the often intrusive stage noise, audience applause and the noticeable tiring of some of the singers, most notably Judith Howarth’s Mathilde. It also brings gains. Chief among those is the energetic conducting of Antonio Fogliani who manages the whole thing with great skill and enervated pacing, clearly feeding off the energy of a live audience. Famously, Rossini’s drama is often far from riveting in Tell, most damagingly in the first act, but Fogliani keeps things going briskly enough, and the orchestra follows him admirably. True, there are inaccuracies and fluffs, but the gains are notable enough for these not to matter although they will also probably rule this set out for any newcomers to the opera; that and the fact that there is no libretto, only the French text provided online.

The singers range from good to very good, except for the gruff yelling of Giulio Pelligra in the brief cameo role of Rodolphe at the end of Act 1. Andrew Foster-Williams is a very good Tell. He passes the test of Sois immobile very capably and he grounds the ensembles of the first and second acts very strongly indeed. Michael Spyres is perfectly fine as Arnold, and manages the frequent leaps above the stave ably but, while I found him solid, he was never exciting, and nowhere near the levels of exhilaration reached by John Osborne or, most thrillingly of all, Pavarotti. Judith Howarth’s Mathilde begins well with a rich, creamy account of Sombre forêt and her duets with Arnold in Act 2 and the first scene of Act 3 find them both on their best form, but she tires in the third act and doesn’t sound good at all in the fourth. Tara Stafford is winningly boy-like as Jemmy, however, and Alessandra Volpe delivers the goods capably enough in her brief appearances as Tell’s wife.

Even better, though, are the chorus, who have a lot to do and make the most of it. The big crowd scenes in the first and third act draw you in willingly, and the radiant finale sounds great. They are best of all, though, in the great summoning of the cantons at the end of Act 2, and this sequence is probably the highlight of the whole set, with Fogliani’s conducting at its most incisive and the three male principals striking sparks off each other and the chorus in turn.

This set’s USP is that it claims to be the “first recording of the complete opera”. This isn’t much explained in the booklet notes, but I assume that, by this, they mean that they open out all the cuts. I noticed it in several places, such as an aria for Jemmy in Act 3 that I hadn’t picked up before, or a much longer storm scene in Act 4 that wasn't necessarily a gain. They even include as an appendix some things that they hadn’t fitted into the main event, though this mainly consists of yet more ballet music of which, I suspect, only complete completists will want to avail themselves. The one interesting curiosity is the alternative finale that he wrote for Paris in 1831 which consists of a choral version of the famous Gallop from the Overture, but it only serves to make you realise how much better the widely accepted finale is.

As I write this in Spring 2015, it seems that this is turning out very much to be William Tell’s time. This recording follows Pappano’s recent one, and I eagerly await a DVD of the recent Pesaro production starring Juan Diego Flórez. There are also an unprecedented three productions of it in the UK in 2014-15: the Teatro Regio di Torino did it in concert in the 2014 Edinburgh Festival, WNO did a brilliantly sung production, and the Royal Opera will mount one in Summer 2015. Purists will tell you that Tell only works in its original French. Not I. Of all the recordings I’ve heard, my favourite is Chailly’s Decca CD with the National Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s sung in Italian, but I find that the open vowels and ripe consonants of the language fit the music like a glove. It also plays to the strengths of his outstanding set of principals, including Sherill Milnes, Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni and Nicolai Ghiaurov. Throw authenticity out the window and go for that one as a first choice.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Ralph Moore


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