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14.10.11

Guillaume Tell

This article was first published at The Classical Review on October 14, 2011.

available at Amazon
Rossini, Guillaume Tell, G. Finley,
J. Osborn, M.-N. Lemieux, Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, A. Pappano

(released on August 9, 2011)
EMI 0 28826 2 | 208'15"
Antonio Pappano is a reliably good conductor, but some of his work, like the Verdi Requiem he recorded with the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia recently, lacks that last bit of unexpected fire to make it truly great. His new recording with the same orchestra of Rossini’s mammoth opera Guillaume Tell falls into the same category. It is a beautiful recording in many ways, showing off the virtues of this unwieldy but worthwhile opera, but it does not quite reach the mark of being indispensable.

In a fine essay for a handsomely presented booklet (which includes libretto and translations) Pappano says that Guillaume Tell was put on his plate when he took the reins of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. This three-CD set claims to be the first recording to use the critical edition of the opera by the late M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet, made for the Pesaro Edition of the complete works of Rossini and published in 1992.

Bartlet’s edition is preferable to the score published in the 19th century, which was made before the work was actually performed. In the course of preparing the opera for public performance, Rossini customarily made many changes that were recorded only in orchestral parts and other archival sources in Paris, and which Bartlet compiled painstakingly to create a definitive version of the opera that was actually premiered by Rossini in 1829.

As scholar Philip Gossett has noted, in his book Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera, Riccardo Muti used an advance copy of Bartlet’s edition for his 1988 production of the opera at La Scala: regrettably, that performance was not done in the original French but with a retrofitted Italian translation of the libretto (an otherwise excellent version, it was released on both CD, on the Phillips label, and on an Opus Arte DVD).

Antonio Pappano, who also conducted a concert performance of the work at the BBC Proms in London this summer, uses the French text but, just as oddly, cuts some of the pieces in the Bartlet edition to fit the opera onto three discs. Without the “authentic” argument in its favor, Pappano’s version cannot quite supplant the leading contender for the most desirable French version of the opera, with Lamberto Gardelli leading the Royal Philharmonic, recently re-released by EMI. It is complete on four CDs (albeit not in the scholarly edition) and has a better cast (among others, Gabriel Bacquier, Montserrat Caballé, and Nicolai Gedda -- the last has to be heard to be believed) and studio recording quality (Pappano’s version was recorded live in concert in the Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, with the crowd noises and hasty page turning sounds that entails).

Little argument needs to be made about the value of the work itself: it has its longueurs, yes, but for its melodic beauty and dramatic qualities, it is a work to be savored, musically, all the more so because its composer went almost completely silent after it for the remaining 40 years of his life. The libretto by Étienne de Jouy and Hippolyte Bis takes up most of the story of the legendary William Tell, a (probably fictional) crossbow maker and marksman who defied his Austrian overlords and sparked the movement toward an independent Swiss confederacy.

More than Schiller’s famous play, the opera draws on a strikingly similar earlier French libretto for André Grétry’s 1791 version of the story, which was itself based on a French play by Antoine-Marin Lemierre. The most famous episode of the legend, Tell being forced by the Austrians to shoot an apple placed on the head of his young son, Jemmy (spoofed by Pappano in his photograph on this set’s cover, with a baton-pierced apple on his head), is reserved until the Third Act, followed by Tell’s escape when he is asked to pilot the ship taking him to prison and the second crossbow shot, which kills Gesler, the oppressive Austrian leader. Along the way, there is a love story involving Tell’s friend Arnold, who has fallen in love with an Austrian princess named Mathilde.

Leading the cast is the heroic, youthful Arnold of John Osborn, not only surviving this punishing role but giving its numerous very high notes force and beauty, albeit with some Iowa-inflected French pronunciation. Gerald Finley’s Tell feels just a little forced, leading to some unpleasant nasality and strained intonation, but overall a good performance. Many of the best scenes are ensembles, like the sequence of numbers in the crossbow shot scene, with the not-so-boyish (but pretty) soprano of Elena Xanthoudakis as Tell’s son, Jemmy, rising bravely over the other voices.

Soprano Malin Byström has a thick, almost mezzo-like sound as Mathilde, and the Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux brings a warm strength to the supporting role of Tell’s wife, Hedwige. The many choruses and dance scenes are among the most pleasing music, and Pappano leads most of them with grace, although it sounds like sections of the chorus, not always in tune, have been pushed to the background in the engineering of the sound.

The orchestra plays well, in general, with especially fine cello solos in the opening section of the extended overture and in the crucial aria for Tell, ‘Sois immobile’, where he bids his son to stay still during the crossbow shot.

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