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Rossini’s Guillaume (Guglielmo) Tell - A survey of the recordings
By Ralph Moore

I confess straight away that over the years my enthusiasm for Rossini operas in general has waned. I still prize the ubiquitous Barber and love some of the individual showpiece arias, especially when they are sung by Rossinian virtuosi, but the experience of seeing some of his operas live has convinced me that on stage many of them lack impact and fare better as recordings for armchair listening. I was, for example, bored silly for the first time in my opera-going life by the Covent Garden production of Semiramide, as one florid coloratura aria or duet after another was rattled off over a very long four hours. It might – or might not - have been Rossini who coined the witticism ‘M. Wagner a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quart d’heures’ but as far as I am concerned, he stands convicted of the same offence. It is generally acknowledged that the first Act of Guillaume Tell has its longueurs; only at its rousing finale does the opera get going and from then on, it's brimful of lovley music, not least highlights such as Mat(h)ilda's celebrated aria "Sombre forêt/Selva opaca" and Arnoldo's "Asil héréditaire/O muto asil di pianto". The subtlety and strength of Rossini's orchestral writing, too, is easily overlooked amongst so much beautiful music for the singer. The overture is by far the most famous orchestral number yet has no thematic or even narrative connection with the opera itself beyond its depiction of a pastoral idyll followed by martial clangour suggestive of heroic resistance – but we wouldn’t want to be without it and it makes such a rousing prelude to the action.

There are exceptions to my reservations concerning the viability of Rossini’s operas as drama; while Rossini’s Otello bears only a passing resemblance either to Shakespeare or Boito’s much more faithful adaptation of Othello for Verdi’s opera, it still works dramatically and contains some superb music, but by and large one is left with the impression that Rossini, like Donizetti, wrote too many production-line operas lacking in distinction – an observation supported by the fact that both composers were inordinately productive, Donizetti composing seventy opera within thirty years and Rossini forty within two decades. Rossini’s output is all the more remarkable bearing in mind that he retired from the opera composition at thirty-six. Guillaume Tell was his operatic swansong, but for me it represents an enormous step in the development of his art and the real culmination of his craft that he intended it to be. Knowing it to be his last opera, he took especial care to ensure that the libretto was literate and without absurdities, and was able to temper the chilly formality and grandeur of operas such as Semiramide with a new human warmth, depicted in the familial, marital and amorous relationships central to the action. This was a new departure for Rossini; with the recent deaths of Weber and Beethoven, he had assumed the mantle of the world’s most famous composer and wanted to write something both new and worthy of the wearer of that weighty garment, so the music of Guillaume Tell, rather than being so heavily ornamented with vocal pyrotechnics, is more in the Romantic vein of the phenomenally successful Der Freischütz, while the plot – derived, like Verdi’s Don Carlos, from a play by Schiller - picks up on the theme of freedom from tyranny so triumphantly embodied by Beethoven in Fidelio - and hence its revolutionary theme antagonised the Italian censors.

The opera is also credited with having established a performance practice which is now a weapon indispensable to any spinto tenor’s armoury: the “ut de poitrine” – the full-voiced, lower-register top C pioneered by Gilbert-Louis Duprez – which Rossini himself sems not to have appreciated, famously comparing it with “the squawk of a capon having its throat cut” – unless that is just another example of his celebrated sarcastic wit. There are 19 top Cs and even, for good measure, two C sharps, and the tessitura of the role of Arnold is murderously high throughout. A tenor who made a speciality of the role was the stentorian Mario Filippeschi, who features in no fewer than five recordings below; he had the full-voiced, lower register, upper extension without resorting to a voix mixte heavily tilted towards the falsetto.

Regarding the eponymous lead baritone role, the exigencies of valid characterisation demand a singer who sounds young, virile and heroic, not the typical gruff father-figure or vengeful brother or husband so often encountered in Italian opera. For that reason, I find singers such as Silveri, Milnes and Finley more apt than, for example Taddei. Similarly, Mathilde must not be staid or matronly and requires a young, fresh voice.

Guillaume Tell is a genuine Grand Opera, written to accommodate the tastes of “la Grande Boutique” (as Verdi always called the Paris Opéra). It is nearly four hours long, complete with big choruses, epic scenery and ballets interposed into the First and Third Acts. In addition to its length, the difficulty of the music - especially the demands made upon the lead tenor - almost immediately resulted in cuts being made or only excerpts being offered; I quote my MusicWeb colleague Bob Farr here: “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?’” For many years the performance of a viciously abridged version was the norm, such that some of the earlier recordings below fit on to a mere two CDs. Although I consider them for their artistic merit, they can only be supplements to a recording of the complete score.

Until relatively recently, the opera was far more often heard as Guglielmo Tell in the Italian version made for Lucca by the official poet of La Scala, Carlo Bassi, two years after its Parisian premiere in 1829. His translation is more than serviceable and in some ways the opera is, thematically, at least, better suited to Italian, dealing as it does with patriotism, resistance to tyranny and the thwarting of secret love, but when you hear this music sung in French either by native singers or singers like Caballé and Gedda who are good linguists and at home in the language, you realise that, unsurprisingly, French better fits the rhythms and stresses of the music.

There are, in fact, only around twenty recordings on CD to choose from and of those I consider below a dozen (I’m afraid I couldn’t face the prospect of Fischer-Dieskau in yet another ill-advised foray into Italian opera under Rossi in 1956, despite the compensatory presence of Cerquetti). The first six are live or radio broadcasts in mono sound, sung in Italian and severely – some would say savagely – cut, but I still find them to be enjoyable for the quality of the singing, playing and conducting. Among the six more modern accounts, two studio-made recordings present the score complete: Gardelli’s in French and Chailly’s in Italian. The other four recordings are all live composite (assembled by selection from two or more performances) but only the Naxos (Fogliani) and Philips (Muti) recordings employ the complete score, whereas the other two excise twenty-five (Pappano on EMI) and forty (Luisi on Orfeo) minutes of music, which narrows down the field yet further if completeness is important to you.

The Recordings:
Mario Rossi – 1952 (radio broadcast, mono - abridged) Cetra, GOP (in Italian)
Orchestra & Chorus - RAI Torino
Guglielmo Tell - Giuseppe Taddei
Arnoldo Melchtal - Mario Filippeschi
Gualtiero Furst - Giorgio Tozzi
Melchthal - Plinio Clabassi
Jemmy - Graziella Sciutti
Edwige - Miti Truccato Pace
Un pescatore - Antonio Pirino
Leutoldo - Mario Zorgniotti
Gessler - Fernando Corena
Matilde - Rosanna Carteri
Rodolfo - Tommaso Soley

The sound here on my GOP issue is clean and hiss-free, but rather opaque and tubby owing to over-zealous reprocessing and with a fair amount of intermittent wow and pitch fluctuation, which can be distracting. At the other end of the sonic spectrum, we have the sound on the original Cetra discs, as it is described by Christopher Howell back in 2002:

“The first thing to be said is that this is the untamed Cetra sound that made many collectors blench even back in the 1950s and treat Cetra sets only as stopgaps for operas otherwise unavailable. The voices are very close, very strong and with a cutting edge. Way behind them is a very boxily recorded orchestra, again with a strident treble and next to no bass.” (review)

Despite the compromised sound, aesthetically, this is a typical recording from the Cetra stable: a fine conductor directing one of the best Italian orchestras, wholly immersed in the idiom, and a host of famous names among the singers. However, I’m not sure that Taddei is entirely right for Tell; the grainy burr of his baritone is rather sophisticated and even elderly in timbre, more like Falstaff or Rigoletto than a young resistance fighter. The Fisherman is good but not as bright and steady as Mario Carlin in the 1954 radio broadcast. Filippeschi is as he always is: open-throated and incisive, not especially refined but certainly delivering, being up to the ferocious demands of Arnoldo’s music. However, he is more lachrymose and piercing here than in subsequent recordings and occasionally snatches his breath, so I prefer to hear him later. Carteri is always excellent; she has plenty of heft but her soft singing is a dream and her voice is evenly registered throughout. The presence of Sciutti and three renowned basses – Clabassi, Tozzi and Corena - in the secondary roles is a further bonus.

At two-and-a-half hours this is a heavily cut version which was the norm pre-1970. It is enjoyable but listening through a veil of muddy sound is a distinct disadvantage compared with some mono performances below and it is not necessarily more strongly cast.

Willem Lohoff – 1953 (radio broadcast, mono - abridged) Gala; Cantus Classics (in Italian)
Orchestra – Omroeporkest; Chorus - Groot Omroepkoor
Guglielmo Tell - Scipio Colombo
Arnoldo Melchtal - Antonio Salvarezza
Gualtiero Furst - Guus Hoekman
Melchthal - Anton Eldering
Jemmy - Nelly Smit
Edwige - Elsa van Bueren
Un pescatore - Timo Jacobs
Leutoldo - Léon Combe
Gessler - Frans de Geus
Matilde - Marisa Mari
Rodolfo - Henk Meyer

After the sonic inadequacy of the Cetra recording, the clarity of this one – with a minimum of distortion, voices and orchestra well-balanced and virtually no surface noise – comes as a really pleasant surprise. The Dutch supporting cast is very good – especially the Leutoldo and Edwige - and the three principal singers are Italian imports of some quality, led by Scipio Colombo, who recorded little but was a baritone of note. He hasn’t the juiciest of voices and his tone is cloudy but he has real presence and stamina, producing fine, prolonged top notes. Antonio Salvarezza was a “proper”, second-rank Italian tenor, not very attractive of voice, being a bit hard, nasal and whining with a touch of tremolo in his vocal production, but able to negotiate the killer role of Arnoldo and sing the top notes without defaulting into his falsetto. There are good things here: the trio concluding Act 2 is especially rousing and Colombo makes a fine job of his central showpiece aria “Resta immobile”, singing with real feeling and maintaining fine legato. The Matilde, however, has a shallow, slightly edgy soprano and her line can become quavery. She sings expressively but it would be idle to assert that presents any competition to the likes of contemporaries Carteri or Tucci.

Lohoff’s conducting is a bit safe and four-square but competent; the chorus is lusty but sometimes ragged. There is no special or compelling reason to acquire this but it is a commendable account, faithfully documenting the performance practice of the time. It is available very cheaply in a 4 CD set from Gala alongside Rossini’s Petite Messe solennelle and excerpts from various operas.

Nino Sanzogno – 1954 (radio broadcast, mono - abridged) Myto (in Italian)
Orchestra & Chorus - RAI Milano
Guglielmo Tell - Paolo Silveri
Arnoldo Melchtal - Mario Filippeschi
Gualtiero Furst - Raffaele Arié
Melchthal - Antonio Massaria
Jemmy - Margherita Benetti
Edwige - Giannella Borelli
Un pescatore - Mario Carlin
Leutoldo - Attilio Barbesi
Gessler - Nicola Zaccaria
Matilde - Anna Maria Rovere
Rodolfo - Angelo Mercuriali
Un Cacciatore - Paolo Washington

An experienced conductor directing a vitalised, on-form orchestra (featuring an excellent solo cellist in the overture) coupled with a typically rousing Italian chorus with impeccable ensemble make the listener tolerant of the slightly harsh mono sound – which is nonetheless perfectly consistent and largely free of distortion or extraneous noise apart from a bit of surface swish and crackle, this being a radio broadcast recorded on acetates. The immediate entrance of the strong-voiced comprimario tenor Mario Carlin consolidates the favourable impression and as the soloists enter one by one, we realise that this was an age and place rich in fine operatic voices. Silveri was one of a whole clutch of first-rate Italian baritones here surrounded by voices of similar calibre; every singer here would be in demand the world over today and there is not a wobbler amongst them. Silveri is invariably smooth and commanding with beautiful legato and no barking, both hugely powerful and touchingly tender in a moving “Resta immobile”.

Filippeschi was the Tell du jour and here, in the third recording we have of him, he is once again impressive. He was hardly a subtle artist but his hard, loud, wholly secure tenor is suitably heroic, replete with the squillo so sadly lacking in too many modern-day singers. From his first top B on “Ah! Matilde, io t’amo”, followed by the top C on the modulation up a semitone in the reprise of that declaration, we know we are in safe hands. He is the epitome of tenorial élan; when he and Silveri combine with Arié in the Act 2 trio, the effect is thrilling. If you like him as I do, this is the best of his recorded outings in the role, owing to the superior sound.

Of the other principal singers, Anna Maria Rovere is now the least remembered, but she had an important career and is better suited to the role of Matilde than some more famous exponents. She has a pure, bright voice with considerable reserves of power and is mostly charming but which occasionally turns a little twittery. Arié is in sonorous voice and we even have the celebrated bass Nicola Zaccaria in the relatively small role of Gessler.

While I appreciate that the score here has been filleted in order to be squeezed on to two CDs, I am still hugely entertained by it. The break between CDs in the long Act 2 duet between Arnoldo and Matilde is unfortunate but let that pass…

Francesco Molinari-Pradelli – 1957 (live, mono - abridged) Bongiovanni (in Italian)
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro Comunale di Bologna
Guglielmo Tell - Giuseppe Taddei
Arnoldo Melchtal - Mario Filippeschi
Gualtiero Furst - Ivo Vinco
Melchthal - Ivan Sardi
Jemmy - Yeda Valtriani
Edwige - Rina Corsi
Un pescatore - Antonio Pirino
Gessler - Ferruccio Mazzoli
Matilde - Gabriella Tucci

The Opera Discography website dates this as being recorded in 1954 but all other sources including this Bongiovanni label say 1957 – not that it much matters.

As is common for recordings from this era and of this provenance, the sound will win no prizes but as a live, mono recording it will do, and I am always surprised how quickly the ear, with a will, adjusts, even to the crumbly, distorted ensembles. The orchestra isn’t too far back but the voices are rather more distant and recessed and it’s a pity that there’s a fleeting bit of break-up in the tape during the Act 2 trio, band 6, CD 2.

Molinari-Pradelli was behind some great recordings in the 50’s and 60’s, and conducts here with plenty of energy and attack; I don’t think I have ever heard the overture taken more speedily but the orchestra keeps up. Once again, is it supposedly “provincial” (i.e. anything but Rome or Milan) but sounds terrific; the succession of solo instruments in that exhilarating opening is impressive – including a great trumpet! – and the audience responds in kind.

On paper, the cast could hardly be starrier, featuring half a dozen names familiar to the opera buff. Antonio Pirino as the Fisherman is considerably more secure and striking than in his performance for Rossi in 1952, but Taddei is at first not in such good voice, intermittently sounding a bit grey, strained and unsteady, once again not personifying my ideal Tell. Filippeschi, too, begins by being rather more laboured and harder of tone than before and Sardi also suffers from some unsteadiness – not that their singing is by any means bad, but maybe there was something in the air that Bolognese evening preventing the soloists from at first being on top form before they warmed up. However, by the time he gets to his big Act 4 arias, Filippeschi is in formidable voice, hanging on to the top concluding C sharps for dear life and delighting the crowd.

Rina Corsi brings a lovely mezzo to the role of Edwige and Ivo Vinco a fine, sonorous bass to bear on the part of Gualtiero. The uncredited Leutoldo is also very fine. Furthermore, Taddei finds more heft and steadiness for his declamatory passages concluding Act 1 and makes a really moving job of “Resta immobile” even if he doesn’t have the juicy sound of Milnes or Bechi. The ever-under-rated Gabriella Tucci – almost invariably over-shadowed by you-know-who in the 50’s and 60’s – is virtually ideal as Matilde. She has an ample, flexible, warm-toned soprano with a flickering quality, reminding me of what a fine Desdemona she was, when partnered with Del Monaco; her soft singing and diminuendi on a held note are especially striking. The audience knows it is hearing something special, too, and applauds appreciatively. She is the best thing here but the whole performance warms up and improves as it unfolds until it becomes one of the most recommendable of the early, cut, mono accounts.

Vincenzo Bellezza – 1958 (live, mono - abridged) The Opera Lovers (in Italian)
Orchestra & Chorus - Royal Philharmonic
Guglielmo Tell - Gino Bechi
Arnoldo Melchtal - Mario Filippeschi
Gualtiero Furst - Guerrando Rigiri
Melchthal - Lorenzo Gaetani
Jemmy - Odilia Rech
Edwige - Clara Betner
Un pescatore - Lorenzo Sabatucci
Leutoldo - Augusto Frati
Gessler - Gino Calò
Matilde - Onelia Fineschi
Rodolfo - Mario Ferrara

Once again, the sound here is considerably less than satisfactory, being muddy and distant, and, as far as I know, the recording itself is solely available on the Opera Lovers website and nowhere else on CD. I mention this straight away as the line-up is enticing, but I need to warn anyone tempted that for those reasons this cannot be a primary choice. There is nothing wrong with the conducting and playing, and the cast looks undeniably impressive, beginning with a particularly mellifluous Fisherman, but we must listen through a haze of heavy distortion in the ensembles and loud sections.

I usually like Bechi, who had a big, strong sound but here he comes across as hard and nasal of voice, wholly wrong for Tell. He brings plenty of passion but little pathos to a lachrymose “Resta immobile” – although the audience is impressed. The same is true of Filippeschi, who may be heard to better advantage in any of his three previous recordings – although here he still sings the socks off any rival except Pavarotti and the Act 1 trio is rousing. However, there is a nasty tape slip in his “Ah! Matilde, io t’amo”, and lots elsewhere, making the pitch drop in Fineschi’s “Selva opaca”, for example, so the recording as a whole is a bit of a trial to listen to.)

Onelia Fineschi was a fine artist who, like Tucci, also partnered Del Monaco as Desdemona; she has a light, pretty voice with a fast vibrato which just occasionally becomes a tad shrill and tremulous but is essentially right in lay-out for Matilde.

Unfortunately, its sonic and technical deficiencies and the miscasting of Bechi prevent me from making this a recommendation.

Fernando Previtali – 1965 (live, mono - abridged) GOP; Opera d’Oro; Opera Depot (in Italian)
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro di San Carlo di Napoli
Guglielmo Tell - Giangiacomo Guelfi
Arnoldo Melchtal - Gianni Raimondi
Gualtiero Furst - Paolo Washington
Melchthal - Bruno Marangoni
Jemmy – Leyla Bersiani
Edwige - Anna Maria Rota
Un pescatore - Pietro Bottazzo
Gessler – Enrico Campi
Matilde - Leyla Gencer
Leutoldo - Silvano Pagliuca

This has by far the best sound of the six, abridged mono recordings reviewed here. Previtali is another of those wholly reliable Italian conductors of that era who can whip up a storm but also caress the tenderer moments; however, the orchestral playing isn’t very refined. For some, there are casting deficiencies to take into consideration. The first solo voice we hear is the Fisherman; the singer in question has a small, nasal voice and cracks on his top notes. It is therefore a pleasure to progress to Guelfi’s huge, beefy baritone but while he has the right voice for the role of Tell, he bellows for long stretches, failing to express much subtlety or any pf the nuance in the music but mostly belting it out, sounding almost invariably ferocious and angry. Depending on your taste, he is either impassioned and committed in his big aria or hamming it up and sacrificing legato to drama. The audience appreciates it however, and at least he certainly attempts to create some pathos there, even singing softly.

Tenor Gianni Raimondi was not having a particularly good night, sounding dry-voiced and audibly straining on the many high notes – including an ill-advised attempt to touch a high D in the trio concluding Act 2 - but they emerge mostly intact and his top C is sometimes quite good, even if Filippeschi’s resonant, trumpet-tones remain preferable. The fact that he can sing the role at all is to be welcomed and even if the “Corriam” cabaletta is truncated, he finds the energy and stamina to yell two sustained, if shaky, top C sharps.

Reactions to Leyla Gencer’s performance here are diverse, some finding her rich tone, with its trademark glottal catches and plunges into her lower register, too grand and imperious for the virginal Matilde, while others simply revel in her sumptuous sound. I am inclined to the latter camp, especially when she produces those floating pianissimi for which she was famous and which soften her portrayal. The audience certainly appreciates her artistry and, in truth, although I accept that she sounds too sophisticated, no other singer of the role gives me as much vocal pleasure as she except Mirella Freni and Montserrat Caballé.

The basses, Anna Maria Rota as Edwige and Leyla Bersiani as Jemmy are all commendable.

I want this recording purely for Gencer but a further advantage is that it is not as severely cut as the previous five, with a timing of just under three hours instead of their two and a half. However, at present, it seems that affordable copies on any of the labels above are hard to find.

Lamberto Gardelli – 1972 (studio, stereo) EMI (in French)
Orchestra - Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Chorus - Ambrosian Opera Chorus
Guillaume Tell - Gabriel Bacquier
Arnold Melchtal - Nicolai Gedda
Walter Furst - Kolos Kováts
Melchthal - Gwynne Howell
Jemmy - Mady Mesplé
Hedwige - Jocelyne Taillon
Ruodi - un pêcheur - Charles Burles
Leuthold - Nicola Christou
Gessler - Louis Hendrikx
Mathilde - Montserrat Caballé
Rodolphe - Ricardo Cassinelli
Un Chasseur - Leslie Fyson

The main vocal glory in this set is undoubtedly Caballé; she displays all the vocal traits that place her in the front rank of great sopranos of the second half of the 20C, particularly her exquisite pianissimi and portamenti. For all her virtues, Mirella Freni yields to Caballé for agility, delicacy and poignancy of expression. Otherwise, the vocal advantages are nearly all with the Decca set; on EMI, Bacquier, Gedda and Kovacs are all dry of voice in comparison with the firmer, more virile tones of Milnes, Pavarotti and Ghiaurov, although it is always a pleasure to hear how Bacquier inflects both the music and the words he sings, injecting great drama and emotion, even if his top notes are a bit windy. Previous reviewers have remarked that the reason behind the dryness of Gedda's timbre was that "he was getting on a bit". Actually, not so; he was barely 47 at the time of recording and his high C is in good shape but to my ears his tenor was ever essentially rather constricted, even if it was more mellifluous when he first appeared on the scene as Karajan's protégé in the 50's. He has the notes and is always an intelligent, involved singer, but the lack of steadiness and tonal beauty in the middle of his voice means that he cannot compete with the splendour of Pavarotti in his prime.

The supporting cast features several native French singers to add authenticity and Gallic bite, although Kovacs is clearly not idiomatic in French. Mady Mesplé is given Jemmy's aria, sometimes cut, as an appendix to Act 3 at the beginning of Disc 4 and uses her bright, very French soprano to sing it prettily. Gardelli provides livelier, considerably more responsive direction than the somewhat cautious Chailly, although EMI’s analogue sound is less brilliant than Decca’s.

We are unlikely now to get a better recording of this, the premiere as it was first heard in 1829.

Riccardo Chailly - 1978-79 (studio, stereo) Decca (in Italian)
Orchestra - National Philharmonic Orchestra; Chorus - Ambrosian Opera Chorus
Guglielmo Tell - Sherrill Milnes
Arnoldo Melchtal - Luciano Pavarotti
Gualtiero Furst - Nicolai Ghiaurov
Melchthal - John Tomlinson
Jemmy - Della Jones
Edwige - Elizabeth Connell
Un pescatore - Cesar Antonio Suarez
Leutoldo - Richard Van Allan
Gessler - Ferruccio Mazzoli
Matilde - Mirella Freni
Rodolfo - Piero De Palma
Un Cacciatore - John Noble

This is a recording with real star-power. Freni and Pavarotti, thee two Modenesi singers who shared the same wet-nurse, here both sing their roles with great generosity of tone and depth of feeling. They have the coloratura agility combined with the spinto power required to do justice to Rossini's extraordinarily demanding music. This was Pavarotti's favourite of all his recordings and many would agree with him by acclaiming it as his best, as he surmounts with ease the formidable challenges of the role of Arnoldo. Milnes sings a noble, virile Tell and the supporting cast, including Ghiaurov as Gualtiero, Elizabeth Connell as Edwige and Della Jones as Jemmy, is drawn from strength. The appearance of one Piero di Palma as the wicked Rodolfo causes a double-take: he was still going strong in 1978 having already sung for thirty years and recorded 130 comprimario tenor roles.

The famous overture is a jewel, of course, but the instrumental colouring throughout is masterly. A highlight for me on a re-listening, apart from the established big moments, is the extended Act 2 trio in track 11 of disc 2 for Pavarotti, Milnes and Ghiaurov: three great voices in full flight singing highly dramatic music.

The stereo sound is superb: spacious and resonant without obscuring detail, giving a sense of real theatre. Chailly does a good job even if I could do with more swagger at times; the orchestral playing is as good as you would expect from the National Philharmonic Orchestra at that time and the Ambrosians are their usual highly professional selves.

Ideally cast, beautifully performed and impeccably recorded, this is one great recording.

Riccardo Muti – 1988 (live composite, digital) Philips; Decca (in Italian)
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro alla Scala
Guglielmo Tell - Giorgio Zancanaro
Arnoldo Melchtal - Chris Merritt
Gualtiero Furst - Giorgio Surjan
Melchthal - Franco De Grandis
Jemmy - Amelia Felle
Edwige - Luciana D' Intino
Un pescatore - Vittorio Terranova
Leutoldo - Alberto Noli
Gessler - Luigi Roni
Matilde - Cheryl Studer
Rodolfo - Ernesto Gavazzi
Un Cacciatore - Ernesto Panariello

This was originally – and only briefly – available in CD form on the Philips label but has now been re-issued on Decca. For me, its main interest lies in the contribution of the great and generally undervalued baritone Giorgio Zancanaro in the eponymous leading role, but of course, there are other attractions, not least the full score played by a first-rate operatic orchestra conducted by Muti, always a stickler for authenticity and here conducting with easy assurance, pacing everything well and trying to ensure that there are as few longueurs as possible – but he cannot always succeed.

Colin Clarke enthusiastically reviewed the Opus Arte DVD issue back in 2005, but I fear that I do not share his enthusiasm. Chris Merritt as Arnoldo can by no stretch of the imagination be said to have a beautiful tenor; it is windy and strenuous with none of the proper squillo or rounded beauty of the authentic spinto tenor. Everything he does sounds so effortful, even though he gets the notes; his basic sound and vocal production are painful on the ear, especially if you have Pavarotti in mind. Then the pulsing beat in Studer’s hefty soprano is obtrusive until, under pressure, her tone acquires a flutter …and she hardly sounds like the young heroine required. Her lower register is deficient. As a result, she and Merritt make a mature and unalluring pair of lovers.

The supporting roles are variable with few attractive voices among them: Luigi is a wobbly Gessler, also weak in his low notes and the Rodolfo is horribly nasal. Zancanaro provides the vocal balm, making “Resta, immobile” a really central showpiece, suffused with tender emotion and distinguished by sustained legato, but he cannot carry the whole show alone and otherwise there isn’t much here to nourish the voice-fancier. I find the whole thing a bit dispiriting and can imagine that it made for a rather long and laborious evening in the theatre. Virtually nothing here is preferable to Chailly’s recording. Not for me.

Fabio Luisi – 1998 (live composite; digital) Orfeo (in French)
Orchestra & Chorus - Wiener Staatsoper
Guillaume Tell - Thomas Hampson
Arnold Melchtal - Giuseppe Sabbatini
Walter Furst - Wojtek Smilek
Melchthal - Walter Fink
Jemmy - Dawn Kotoski
Hedwige - Mihaela Ungureanu
Ruodi - un pêcheur - Mathias Zachariassen
Leuthold - Yu Chen
Gessler - Egil Silins
Mathilde - Nancy Gustafson

Bob Farr reviewed this quite positively back in 2005, but I’m afraid I do not share even his qualified approval. Luisi is an alert, flexible conductor but for me, with one exception, there the advantages of this live performance end. I am less than enthused by Thomas Hampson’s Tell, insofar as while I have enjoyed him in lighter roles, such as Athanaël in Massenet’s ThaÏs, I do not find that he as the pharyngeal heft to carry off more heroic baritone parts such as Tell here. His French is excellent and he acts well with his voice but he is essentially a tenor masquerading as a baritone, with weak low notes such that his voice is lost in ensembles and he is reduced to barking for emphasis. He is not partnered by any singers of distinction save Sabbatini as Arnoldo, whose tenor might be half a size too small but he sings with verve and some penetration, coping well with the tessitura and delivering some splendid top notes. The supporting basses are woofy, woolly and clumsy. Nancy Gustafson is something of a cipher as Mathilde, breathy and often flat with no tonal allure and little legato.

The final nail in the coffin as far the competitiveness of this recording is concerned is the fact that a full forty minutes of music have been cut. Other than the superiority of Sabbatini over Gedda, I can see no reason to endorse this over Gardelli’s as the preferred French version.

Antonio Pappano – 2010 (live; digital) EMI/Warner (in French)
Orchestra & Chorus - Santa Cecilia
Guillaume Tell – Gerald Finley
Arnold Melchtal - John Osborn
Walter Furst – Matthew Rose
Melchthal - Frédéric Caton
Jemmy – Elena Xanthoudakis
Hedwige – Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Ruodi - un pêcheur - Celso Albelo
Leuthold – Carlo Bossi
Gessler – Carlo Cigni
Mathilde – Malin Byström

This recording was given very mixed reviews on its appearance and I refer you to Bob Farr’s qualified assessment.

It runs to nearly three and a half hours, rather than the usual four for the complete score; apparently it was recorded complete then Warner cut twenty-five minutes of music from Act 4 – including an important trio for Jemmy, Edwige and Mathilde and Hedwige’s prayer "Sauve Guillaume" - so that it would fit onto three CDs – albeit with the justification that Rossini himself approved those cuts for a production subsequent to its premiere. It also suffers from some clear inadequacies in the casting - Gerald Finley’s handsomely voiced Tell excepted (see Gavin Dixon's review).

I’ll put my cards on the table and opine that John Osborn’s Arnoldo is a poor thing compared with tenors such as Filippeschi. His upper extension is mostly mixed falsetto, not properly pharyngeal. For the same reason, Gedda sound uncomfortable in the otherwise excellent Gardelli recording and constitutes its main weakness; in fact, he and Osborn sound similar, both making a throaty, squeezed sound. Malin Byström’s singing comes nowhere near the beauty and virtuosity of singers in comparable modern recordings such as Caballé and Freni. She has a round, placid, matronly sound which is not unattractive per se but inappropriate for the character she is portraying – it is more of a Hedwige voice and does not possess the characteristics typical of a “lyric soprano”. The supporting roles are variably sung. The vigour of Pappano’s direction and Gerald Finley’s smooth, youthful Tell are the main attractions here; Finley sings in beautiful French, maintains admirable legato and displays the power he has brought to challenging roles such Hans Sachs, trumping singers like Taddei who sound too old, but, like Zancanaro for Muti, he cannot carry the whole show.

Pappano is supported by an excellent chorus and orchestra, but the deficiencies in the singing here rule this out for me.

Antonino Fogliani - 2013 (live composite, digital) Naxos (in French)
Orchestra - Virtuosi Brunensis; Chorus - Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań
Guillaume Tell - Andrew Foster-Williams
Arnold Melchtal - Michael Spyres
Walter Furst – Nahuel Di Pierro
Melchthal - Nahuel Di Pierro
Jemmy – Tara Stafford
Hedwige – Alessandra Volpe
Ruodi - un pêcheur - Artavazd Sargsyan
Leuthold – Marco Filippo Romano
Gessler – Raffaele Facciolà
Mathilde – Judith Howarth

Cast of the Supplement
Guillaume Tell - Marco Filippo Romano (bass); Arnold - Giulio Pelligra (tenor); Walter and Gessler - Raffaele Facciolà (bass); Jemmy - Tara Stafford (soprano); Rodolphe - Artavazd Sargsyan (tenor); Mathilde - Diana Mian (soprano); Hedwige - Alessandra Volpe (mezzo).

I previously reviewed this and reproduce almost the whole of that review here, as I see no reason to revise my opinion.

This recording from the “Rossini in Wildbad” Festival in 2013 employs the new edition published by the Fondazione Rossini and Ricordi which restores all the cuts Rossini sanctioned during the first half a dozen performances in response to public and critical opinion and thus reflects what was heard at the premiere in Paris in 1829. As such, it makes for a very long opera lasting ten minutes under four hours and stretching over four CDs, with one Act per disc. In addition, there is a 24-minute supplement featuring two alternative dance numbers and the finale written for the truncated, three-Act 1831 Paris version.

It is thus as complete as can be and in the original French. Most collectors will compare this new version from Naxos with the old EMI recording under Gardelli, which comes in at just under four hours and offers considerably better singing from Gabriel Bacquier, Nicolai Gedda and Montserrat Caballé in the lead roles (review ). That EMI recording was, like this one, in French but while it must be admitted that Italian does not always sit well with the music’s rhythms, when listening to Andrew Foster-Williams’ rather pale and dry-voiced account of “Sois immobile”, I cannot help making invidious comparisons with the heroic tones of Milnes’ “Resta immobile” in Chailly’s studio recording. Tell needs to be sung by a really charismatic baritone and Foster-Williams simply isn’t. His basic tone remains very ordinary and lacking resonance, his vibrato is obtrusive and his top notes sound forced; even a top G is a strained effort and his singing in the famous apple-shooting scene is undistinguished; in fact, the standard of singing in this live recording constitutes its chief Achilles’ heel. There are three fine singers here in Michael Spyres, Judith Howarth and Alessandra Volpe; Spyres’ smallish, agile tenor is similar in timbre to Gedda’s but he is nowhere near as stylish as he and certainly not as thrilling as Pavarotti. His famous aria “Asile héréditaire” is efficiently despatched with the top D intact but without much “ping”. Howarth’s soprano is appreciably greater in amplitude than her leading man and she is a committed singer, but her voice develops a pronounced beat at volume and can quickly become stressed on top notes, which she is in the habit of sliding up to. Mezzo-soprano Volpe has a big, fruity voice and the makings of a major singer; her role in the Fourth Act is prominent and the trio goes especially well, despite the demerit of Tell’s son, Jemmy, being sung by a tweety, fluttery-voiced soprano. The bass who sings Melchthal is simply poor, being rocky and blustery, and another bass who sings Gessler is dire: one of those really throttled voices of the “ingolata” type which are painful to listen to. Apart from Spyres and Volpe, some of the best vocal quality comes from the neat French tenor who sings the supporting role of Ruodi, the fisherman. The Polish chorus is excellent and the orchestra energised, if occasionally a little rough and ready. The conducting is similarly propulsive but, understandably, perhaps, given that this is such a long opera and the conductor presumably wanted to avoid letting proceedings drag, speeds are sometimes rushed, hence the lovely duet for Arnold and Mathilde is gabbled and the tempo demands too much of Spyres.

The extra music for the Act III “Divertissement” provided in the supplement is pleasant but negligible; the main point of interest is that alternative ending, with the roles of Tell and Mathilde sung by different singers from the main offering: Marco Filippo Romano steps up from Leuthold, tenor Giulio Pelligra likewise from Rodolphe, and a new soprano, Diana Mian steps in as the Habsburg princess. It’s a rousing piece in which everyone proclaims “Liberté” in unison to a reprise of the most famous tune Rossini ever wrote (older listeners, think “The Lone Ranger”). It’s fun but at four and a half minutes flat hardly a reason to acquire this new set.

The recorded sound is very good and despite the thumping of dancer’s feet inevitable in a live, stage recording - especially noticeable and unfortunate in the “Vengeance” choral ensemble after Spyres’ aria at the beginning of Act IV - very little else is obtrusive.

Unless utter completeness is your criterion, I do not think this recording is to be preferred to the older, now classic, versions.

Devotees of this, Rossini’s last operatic masterpiece, will undoubtedly want to hear the full score in both the original French and the Italian adaptation, in which case there is surely no argument that Gardelli and Chailly respectively offer the best options for each of those.

However, a supplement in the form of one of the recordings of the cut version in Italian will also be of interest for the excellence of the singers involved, even if the mono sound is mediocre and some almost fall into the “extended highlights” category. It must also be said that, the two main recommendations apart, the standard of singing is generally so much higher in those old, cut recordings and I cannot otherwise in all conscience recommend any of the four modern, live recordings; they are all dull and flawed.

Historical: Sanzogno
Studio (French) Gardelli
Studio (Italian): Chailly

Ralph Moore
January 2021

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