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Do 'Tell'

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Anyone who knows me or follows my writing is aware of my unabashed love for Rossini -- the man and his operas. When I am asked that old question about my favorite operas or my “desert island” choices, I usually mention works including Don Carlo, Don Giovanni, Andrea Chénier, Tannhauser, Lohengrin, Fidelio, La Clemenza di Tito, Les Troyens, Elektra, Porgy and Bess and so on and always add, “plus every note Rossini ever wrote.”

I think his music is among the most difficult to sing as well as to play well in an orchestra because it has energy, variety, many colors and phenomenal vocal demands. A conductor has to work really hard in Rossini to achieve all of these effects and “breathe” with the singers. When people dismiss Rossini as “just” being comedic (as if that is easy) or they find the music repetitive, I want to politely reply that they have not had the pleasure of hearing great Rossini singing. For a corrective, listen to any Marilyn Horne performance and you will “get” Rossini. Even more astonishing are her live performances, which are infused with a sense of the stage in addition to her peerless musicianship and technique. But there are many other fine Rossini singers, in the comedies as well as the dramas and tragedies.

On July 9 and 15, the Caramoor Festival in Katonah, New York will stage a rare performance of Rossini’s final opera, Guillaume Tell, which premiered in Paris in 1829. Its Italian-language version, Guglielmo Tell, premiered in Lucca in 1831 and was probably attended by Puccini’s father and grandfather, both noted local composers. Tell is often referred to as Rossini’s masterpiece, with which I agree in theory but hardly anyone has ever seen it. If I am correct, the Met has not done it since about 1931. I think San Francisco Opera did it in around 1980 and I saw performances in Vienna and Pesaro and heard it in concert a few years ago by the Opera Orchestra of New York, when tenor Marcello Giordani brought down the house as Arnold. 

To me the only opera that could rival this one as Rossini’s greatest work is Semiramide (1823). It is glorious from start to finish and I wish the Met would revive its 1992 production. There are good singers around who can do this music, some of whom you have heard me mention: Joyce DiDonato, Angela Meade, Daniela Barcellona, Vivica Genaux, Lawrence Brownlee, Juan Diego Florez, Barry Banks and good young basses who should go to Samuel Ramey for coaching in this music.

Rossini mostly retired after completing this opera. I commend to you Zachary Woolfe’s article in The New York Times musing about why Rossini quit at a young age. The article is interesting and provocative, though I don’t quite agree with the assertion that Rossini moved to grander, more serious works after composing Il Barbiere di Siviglia in 1816. He mixed comedy, drama and tragedy from the very start of his career.

His first opera, Demetrio e Polibio (written 1810, staged 1812) was a drama and other serious works written before Il Barbiere include Ciro in Babilonia, Tancredi, Aureliano in Palmira, Sigismondo, Elisabetta Regina d’Inghilterra (whose overture Rossini used again for Il Barbiere), and Torvaldo e Dorliska. I would agree that Rossini’s dramatic writing got better as he moved along while he had a rare comic gift from the start. Because comedy is tougher to achieve than drama, he was admired for being able to achieve it so brilliantly and consistently.

Guillaume Tell is unique in the Rossini canon in that it is bel canto but more grande opéra in the French style. There are four acts, big choruses, the need for big scenic effects and an unabashed Romanticism. It was adapted from the German-language play Wilhelm Tell (1804) by Friedrich Schiller, whose writings inspired Verdi’s I Masnadieri and Don Carlo as well as the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

William Tell, in the opera, is a bass, his daughter Jemmy is a soprano, as is Mathilde, a Hapsburg princess destined to be part of the Swiss government.  The toughest role is Arnold, the tenor and romantic lead in the opera. His aria, “Asile Hereditaire,” which concludes with a rousing chorus, seems to foreshadow (and, to me, outdo) “Di quella pira” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore.

Opera lovers love to debate whether anyone can sing this as Rossini intended. The great Adolphe Nourrit sang the premiere and, even then, there was some debate as to whether he pulled it off. I will give you three performances to listen to. Do some comparative listening and come to your own conclusions. Marcello Giordani, in French and during an opera performance in a large theater in Paris:

Nicolai Gedda in a 1973 studio recording that is a bit wobbly on YouTube but whose merits still come through:

Juan Diego Flórez in concert and without chorus:

To me, these performances of Guillaume Tell at Caramoor, with a talented young cast led by bel canto specialist Will Crutchfield, is New York’s opera event of year. Oh, and if there is a better overture in all of opera, I don’t know it. Hi, ho Gioachino!