Prom 2 – William Tell provides a great ‘Second Night’

Rossini, William Tell (Guillaume Tell) (Concert Performance) : Soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome; Antonio Pappano. Royal Albert Hall, London, 16.7.2011. (JPr)

Now this was undoubtedly the best Prom I have been to … since the last time I wrote I had been to a Prom that was the best one I could remember! But who needs my opinion, certainly not Rossini who gave up composing in 1829 – with half his life still before him – with the explanation that he left his career ‘just at the moment where I felt superior, indifferent to the judgement of men.’ Apparently he never regretted his decision. Talking of judgements, I have given indifferent verdicts about some recent performances by Antonio Pappano at Covent Garden. However, I recently added that he is unsurpassed in some repertoire, with the unwritten suggestion that he spreads himself a little too thinly as music director of the Royal Opera and might do more than he needs to.

Clearly something Maestro Pappano is ‘unsurpassed’ in is the music of Gioacchino Rossini. Recently he conducted concert performances of William Tell – sung in the original French, rather than the more usual Italian – with the orchestra and chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome. This is now available from EMI and formed the basis of this Prom, though there are significant cast changes including a different William Tell. I believe the original has possibly another hour’s worth of music and the opera is frequently cut as it was here. However there was an incandescent quality to the performance – from both orchestra and soloists – that has seldom been equalled by concert performances at the Proms. I must just make some minor carping here about some tedious dance music that was left in Act III and it is now the twenty-first century and why cannot the Royal Albert Hall have TV screens for surtitles to reduce the amount of deforestation caused by the weighty librettos that the audience has to read.

The opera is based on an 1804 play by Friedrich Schiller about a fourteenth-century Swiss hero and their version of our Robin Hood. William Tell is also a legendary archer and almost everyone knows that the pivotal moment in the story is when he is forced to shoot at an apple placed on the head of his son, Jemmy. His defiance inspires a successful rebellion against Austrian rule. Whether he and the evil Austrian Governor, Gessler, ever existed – like Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham – is debatable. It is interesting that this opera – that is a paean for freedom from an oppressors’ yolk and that concludes with the line Liberté, redescends des cieux! (Liberty, descend again from heaven!) was put on first in Paris in 1829, and within 11 months the last Bourbon King of France, Charles X (to whom William Tell was dedicated) had been removed from the throne by the July revolution of 1830!

‘A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty “Hi Ho Silver!” ‘ Oh to be young again! The overture to William Tell has maintained a life of its own totally divorced from the opera that follows it. There is just so much music, the need for large orchestral and choral forces and twelve major solo roles – a few of them fiendishly difficult – and this has kept this work from the regular repertory. There is also the problem of staging the shooting of the apple … when swapping a spear in Parsifal cannot be done without raising a laugh then Tell’s wonder shot has no chance! I have only heard it twice before, once in 1992 at Covent Garden and recently given, also in a concert version, by Chelsea Opera Group.

It was obvious that the orchestra were on inspired form right from the start with Luigi Piovano’s elegiac cello ushering in Rossini’s evocation of a pastoral Swiss community with the following ‘storm’ and ‘call to the dairy cows’ before the very well-known ‘gallop’. The strings of the orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome, were almost ethereal in their lyrical loveliness and were the revelation of the long evening, despite the fine contributions from every section of the orchestra. I loved how the far reaches of the Royal Albert Hall were used for various horn calls … and I was fascinated by how much the triangle player was involved throughout all the music. Under Antonio Pappano’s hyper-active baton all that was pastoral, tender, joyous or solemn in the music was superbly integrated into a very convincing account of Rossini’s final stage work that is full of local colour, blending perfectly the bel canto lyricism of Italian opera with the more declamatory and choral and ballet-heavy French opera.

Pappano was supported by a dozen fine soloists and an excellent chorus. It was led by Michele Pertusi who perhaps was the weakest link in the ‘cast’. He certainly expressed well the angst and love of a concerned father but wasn’t ‘larger than life’ and Tell – despite the little Rossini gives him to work on – should be. Arnold is illicitly in love with Mathilde, a princess from the other side of the mountains, Austria, and a supposed enemy. They get the best show-stopping moments, Sombre forêt (Gloomy forest) for her in Act II and for him the challenging final act cabaletta following his aria Asile héréditaire (Home of my forefathers) with all the high Cs and C-sharps. John Osborn is a genuine bel canto tenor, most at stunning ease with Arnold’s cruelly high-lying part; his tone did thin a little but then again he had a huge auditorium to fill with his sound and this is also not surprising at the end of a tiring evening. Malin Byström sang Mathilde and negotiated all the coloratura demands with polished ease. She is a name new to me but looks to be a real talent; she will appear as Marguerite and Fiordiligi at Covent Garden next season. Elena Xanthoudakis was very good in the trouser role of Tell’s loyal son, Jemmy and notable other contributions came from Nicolas Courjal’s Gessler, Matthew Rose’s Swiss conspirator Furst, Mark Stone’s Leuthold, a huntsman and Patricia Bardon, in another underwritten role as Tell’s wife, Hedwige.

Just a couple of final quibbles in what was an exceptional evening, firstly that some of the more quietly sung moments got lost in the vast recesses of the Royal Albert Hall and that the evening was an uneasy blend of standard concert performance (heads in scores on music stands) and attempts at some ‘staging’ with the entries of Arnold and Mathilde down some stall steps to the platform. So saying, I repeat, it was a memorable Prom and the best one … since that last best one!

Jim Pritchard