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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Guillaume Tell, Opera in four acts, 1829 [200 mins]
Guillaume Tell, Swiss patriot - Gerald Finley (baritone); Arnold Melcthal, a Swiss patriot in love with Mathilde - John Osborn (tenor); Melcthal, Arnold’s father - Eric Halfvarson (bass); Mathilde, Princess of the House of Habsburg – Malin Byström (sop); Jemmy, Tell’s son - Sofia Fomina (soprano); Gessler, despotic Governor of the Cantons of Schwyz and Uri - Nicolas Courjal (bass); Rodolphe – commander of Gessler’s archers – Michael Colvin (tenor); Leuthold, a shepherd – Samuel Dale Johnson (bass); Ruodi, a fisherman – Enea Scala (tenor); Hedwige, Tell’s wife – Enkelejda Shkosa (mezzo soprano)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House/Antonio Pappano
Director: Damiano Michieletto
Set Designer: Paolo Fantin
Costume Designer: Carla Teti
Lighting Designer: Alessandro Carletti
rec. 5 July 2015, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Performed in the Critical Edition by E. C. Bartlett.
Video Director, Jonathan Haswell
Sound formats, dts surround. Dolby digital stereo. Picture format 16:9 HD
Introductory essay and synopsis in English, German and French
Subtitles in English, French (original language), Italian, German, and Korean (Opera)
OPUS ARTE OA1205D [2 DVDs: 216 mins]

In the first years of his compositional life, 1811-1819, Rossini composed and presented a total of thirty operas, often, like Bach, Haydn and others before him, re-cycling some music among them. In addition, he made major revisions to several of these works for different theatres, providing happy ending to tragedies, as with Tancredi, for example. 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. 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, the impresario, who had originally invited the composer to Naples. Six of his operas were presented in Vienna 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 with it 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 previously 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, futile, stringent and painful treatments in the era before antibiotics.

Guillaume Tell constitutes a massive step forward 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. It is by far his longest opera, a complete performance lasting nearly four hours, its duration rivalled only by Semiramide, his thirty fourth title premiered at La Fenice, Venice in 1823. Guillaume Tell draws from Rossini some of his most memorable music in an opera of great melodic and dramatic felicity.

This is one of a series of Royal Opera House productions conceived under the supervision of Kasper Holten as Director of Opera. Holten seems to have seen it as his role to pull the dramaturgy of the Royal Opera in the direction, dominant in Europe, of Regietheater and modernised Producer Concept realisations of the repertoire. At its premiere on 29th of June 2015 this production included scenes rarely seen or heard in London’s premiere opera house involving much booing and audience clamour against what they were seeing in a particular scene of Act Three. This involved the stripping and simulated rape of one of the subjugated Swiss women who were being generally abused by the occupying Austrian soldiers. That the whole was updated and played in modern dress, as are so many of modern productions in a seeming quest for relevance rather than fidelity to the composer’s intentions and vision, did not help the mood. The furore made news in the National Press outside the arts columns and by the time of this performance the incident and demeaning of the woman had been considerably toned down with no nudity or simulated copulation involved. This change was in direct opposition to Holten’s and others’ stated intent in the immediate aftermath of the furore which, in terms of its disturbance of the musical continuity, was most unusual at Covent Garden. Perhaps it is also relevant that audiences at Covent Garden have become, according to specialist commentators and reviewers, increasingly irritated by the tendency for the on-going modernism exemplified in so many new productions. London isn’t Munich, where excellent singing goes alongside staging concepts that composers would not recognise. The updating in this production also involves the necessity of an extra mute figure, dressed in the period Swiss costume of the original story, who, apart from anything else, seems only to give out arrows as necessary and appropriate. The proliferation of pistols and automatic rifles appears incongruous with the handing Tell a period crossbow to shoot the apple on top of his son’s head (DVD2. Ch.9).

On the musical side, matters were of a totally different category under Pappano’s direction. Among world conductors he is, perhaps, the most experienced conducting this rarely staged work, a fact that quickly evidenced by the nature of the overture, a regular concert piece which Pappano handled with a blend of spirituality and violence, as befitted its use as the introduction to the opera It was matched by his support of the singing cast, both soloists and chorus. Regrettably, as noted in the specialist press, he made cuts to the score, notably in the trio and the prayer in Act Four. The solo singing throughout was of a generally high, but not uniformly outstanding, order. In the eponymous role Gerald Finley brought his usual level of professionalism to both his singing and acting, despite a few moments I felt when he needed a weightier vocal tone for dramatic impact. Sofia Fomina’s portrayal of his son, Jemmy, was outstanding in terms of both singing and acting, whether playing toy soldiers or becoming involved in the more serious business of subversion. As his mother, and Tell’s wife, Hedwige, Enkelejda Shkosa acted with conviction and sang well, as did Malin Byström as the Hapsburg Princess who brought humanity to the treatment of the Swiss as well as being loved by Arnold, the patriot son of a brutally murdered father. In the fiendishly high tenor role of Arnold, John Osborne managed the high notes of the notorious act four aria Asile héréditaire (DVD2 Ch.12) taking the highest note in head voice. At times, he did not seem to be wholly at ease as an actor in this setting. As his father, Melcthal, Eric Halfvarson, whom we are used to seeing as Verdi’s Grand Inquisitor, was somewhat lacking in vocal sonority, evenness and weight. These qualities were more evident in Michael Colvin’s brief sung appearance as the sadistic Austrian commander Rodolphe. There were no notable weaknesses elsewhere in the singing cast, as befits the house.

As to the staging and lighting, both were abysmal. Too many vertical trees for singers to sit astride or perch, on, with nothing to contribute appropriate Swiss atmosphere to the stage action. A backdrop of an icy mountain scene would have given some atmosphere, or a better representation of Tell’s boat journey might have helped.  Too many pistols and automatic rifles all contributed to the ugh factor!

As the final insult to a purchaser of this issue, the booklet, whilst providing a philosophical essay and synopsis in three languages along with multiple coloured pictures, fails to provide the basics of a Chapter listing and timings - de rigeur for most rivals.

Robert J Farr



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