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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Guillaume Tell - opera in four acts (1829)
Cast & recording details below review
DECCA DVD 0743870 [2 DVDs: 140:00 + 106:00 + bonus: 16:00]

In the first years of his compositional life (1811-1819) Rossini composed and presented a total of thirty operas. Often, like Bach and Haydn before him, he recycled music between these operas. In addition he also wrote major revisions to several of these works for different theatres, providing happy endings to tragedies as, for example, with Tancredi. It was a hectic creative pace. By comparison, Rossini’s last ten operas were written over a more leisurely nine years with three of these works being major revisions, in French, of earlier operas written to Italian libretti.

In 1828, when he began composing Guillaume Tell, Rossini was 36 years old and following the death of Beethoven was the world’s best-known composer. This 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, the impresario who had originally invited the composer to Naples and who presented six of his operas in the city between February and July of that year. On his visit to London the following year, Rossini himself mounted 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 for him, exacerbated by frequent and futile, stringent and painful treatments in the era before antibiotics.

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 Guillaume 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, 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 two where the representatives of the three Cantons assemble and agree to rebel against the tyranny of Governor Gesler. 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. After the premiere he started to omit the great act four aria, Asile héréditaire, and its cabaletta (DVD 2 Chs 10-11). Soon further reductions and mutilations were inflicted. Within a year it was presented in three abbreviated acts. Further insults followed when act two 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 two of Tell that night, to which Rossini was supposed to have replied "What the whole of it?"

This Decca DVD is of the production staged at the 2013 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, an annual occasion devoted to staging of the composer’s works. Many productions at this annual event have been the first airing of the works concerned for many years. It has contributed significantly to the rediscovery of the composer’s works at major opera houses worldwide. This is illustrated by the fact that the premieres of two of Rossini’s opera seria compositions for Naples, Armida and La donna del Lago, composed for productions in 1817 and 1819 respectively, only received their British and American premieres in 2010 for the former and 2014 and 2015 for the later. The reason for this neglect has been attributed to the lack of tenors capable of the demanding tessitura Rossini wrote into the roles. At Naples that was to accommodate the presence of Giovanni David and Andrea Nozzari, the two formidable coloratura tenors that the impresario, Domenico Barbaja, had contracted to the San Carlo Theatre where Rossini was Musical Director. As such he was expected to write works with them, and other contracted singers, specifically in mind. For Guillaume Tell Rossini’s demands for the tenor role of Arnold were even greater. Charles Osborne, ("The Bel Canto Operas", Methuen, 1994, p.132) quotes the role as having 93 A flats, 54 B flats, 15 Bs, 19 Cs and 2 C sharps. The creator, Adolphe Nourrit, is reputed to have found it difficult to sing the role. More recently Pavarotti refused it for his La Scala debut, reckoning it would ruin his voice. In the bonus to this performance the boss of the Pesaro Festival reckons Juan Diego Florez is the only singer capable in the present day. With the opera enjoying a renaissance on record and in the theatre my observation is that is not true albeit that other tenors who are capable do not have the ease of production and manner of sustaining the notes that Florez demonstrates in this performance.

A big problem for lovers of Rossini’s operas, many dependant on filmed Pesaro productions, is the Festival’s overt policy of somewhat idiosyncratic concept productions offsetting the first class singing casts. This is particularly evident in the production of Mosé in Egitto (review) with the same Director and set designer as here. As in that performance, the singing cast here is excellent, but Director Graham Vick thinks it is necessary to move the time and place for which Rossini wrote. The only good news is that having done that to Mosé in Egitto, using the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a basis, he could hardly have used it again. Instead, he updates the action to the early twentieth century with costumes and concept that includes the filming of the proceedings with a dated cine camera. It looks silly and is. The Hapsburgs in Switzerland had long gone and as had the use of crossbows. Add the basic limitations of the Adriatic Arena, the drop curtain goes upward, and opportunities are missed. The mise-en-scène is set in a strictly rectangular shoe box having a gallery on one side with sliding panels at the rear which are moved from time to time to reveal a projected snow-capped mountain scene. The words On Terra Omnia dominate the back wall and becomes blood-spattered. The obligatory dance sequence, a requisite for any work for the Paris Opéra is staged as a vicious humiliation of the Swiss peasants and received a mixed response from the audience often spoiling the enjoyment of the lovely melody. Despite the possible use of projections, the perilous journey of Tell and Gesler across the lake is merely representational, as are other critical parts of the plot. The journey’s importance could easily be missed in the general mélange of director concepts. As for Rossini’s storm music here it is not as fearsome as in some of his earlier works where such scenes seemed nearly de rigueur.

Excellent sung and acted performances are in evidence from Nicola Alaimo in the eponymous role, Amanda Forsythe a superb Jemmy and Marina Rebeka as Mathilde, although the latter’s diction could be better. Luca Tittoto is a particularly arrogant Gesler, the despised Austrian Governor. Along with Florez all manage passable French, not a strength of some of the minor roles; a language coach is notable by absence in the credits. On the rostrum Michele Mariotti is masterful in support of his singers, only letting the orchestra off the leash to thrilling effect in the magnificent overture.

The 1988 La Scala staging conduced by Muti has Chris Merritt as Arnold. He is very second division compared with Florez here (Opus Arte OA LS 3002 D). It also uses film sequences but deploys them to better effect. My advice is to read the synopsis provided thoroughly, otherwise you might wonder what is going on with soil spread over the stage and other gimmicks. Covent Garden is scheduled to stage a new production in the summer of 2015. It is scheduled for transmission to cinemas and will provide further opportunity to get to know this wonderfully melodic work. Likewise the recent bargain price CD issue on Naxos despite some vocal limitations in the cast (review).

Robert J Farr

Cast & recording details
Guillaume Tell, Swiss patriot - Nicola Alaimo (baritone); Arnold Melcthal, a Swiss patriot in love with Mathilde - Juan Diego Florez (tenor); Melcthal, Arnold’s father - Simone Alberghini (bass); Jemmy, Tell’s son - Amanda Forsythe (soprano); Gesler, despotic Governor of the Cantons of Schwyz and Uri - Luca Tittoto (bass); Rodolphe – commander of Gessler’s archers – Alessandro Luciano (tenor); Leuthold, a shepherd – Wojtek Gierlach (bass); Mathilde, Princess of the House of Hapsburg - Marina Rebeka (soprano); Ruodi, a fisherman – Celso Albelo (tenor); Hedwige, Tell’s wife – Veronica Simeonini (mezzo)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Comunale, Bologna/Michele Mariotti
rec. live, Adriatic Theatre. Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, Italy, 2013
Director: Graham Vick
Set and Costume Designer: Paul Brown
Video Director: Tiziano Mancini
Choreographer: Ron Howell
Sound formats: dts surround. Dolby digital stereo
Picture format: 16:9 HD
Introductory essay and synopsis in English, German, French
Subtitles: English, French (original language), Italian, German, Korean



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