A Great Performance of Rossini’s Last and  Greatest Operatic Achievement

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gioachino Rossini, William Tell. Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera/Carlo Rizzi (conductor)Venue Cymru (North Wales Theatre), Llandudno. 24.10. 2014.(RJF)

Sung in French with surtitles in English and Welsh.


William Tell, David Kempster
Arnold, Barry Banks
Hedwige, Leah-Marian Jones
Jemmy, Fflur Wyn
Mechtal / Walter, Richard Wiegold
Mathilde, Gisella Stille
Gesler, Clive Bayley
Leuthold, Aidan Smith
Rodolphe, Nicky Spence
Ruodi Luciano Botelho

Director: David Pountney
Set Designer: Raimund Bauer
Costume Designer: Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting Designer: Fabrice Kebour
Chorus Master: Alexander Martin
Choreographer: Amir Housseinpour
Co-production with Grand Théâtre de Genève and Teatr Wielki, Warsaw

In the first years of his compositional life, 1811-1819, Rossini composed and presented a total of 30 operas. However, like Bach, Haydn and others before him, he re-cycled some music between these operas. He also wrote major revisions to several of them for different theatres, providing happy endings to tragedies, as with Tancredi for example. It was a hectic creative pace. By comparison Rossini’s last operas were written over a more leisurely nine years with three of these works being major revisions in French of earlier Italian operas. In 1828 when he began composing Guillaume Tell, Rossini was 36 years old and following the death of Beethoven he was the world’s best-known composer.

Guillaume Tell was to be Rossini’s 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, who presented six of his operas 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 no less. His marriage to his long-term mistress, Isabella Colbran, also brought 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 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 to him, acerbated by frequent, and futile, painfully stringent treatments.

Whilst Rossini had hinted at possible retirement during the composition of Guillaume Tell the operashows no signs of waning musical creativity or capacity and concern for detail. On the contrary, not only is it by far his longest opera, a complete performance lasting nearly four hours, it incorporates significant orchestral innovations and a closer match between music and libretto than he had achieved before. It could be argued that Guillaume Tell constitutes a massive step in romanticism unmatched in France or Italy until Verdi’s later works and in Germany by Wagner thirty years later. Rossini took excessive care over the opera’s libretto, casting and composition.

Guillaume Tell work is based on Schiller’s last completed drama of 1804. Rossini’s first choice of librettist was Eugene Scribe who had provided the text for his previous opera, Le Comte Ory, but he preferred other subjects. Rossini then turned to the academic Victor-Joseph Étienne, librettist of Spontini’s La Vestale, who had transformed the libretto of his Naples opera seria Mose in Egitto (5th March 1818) into the French Moïse et Pharon premiered at the Paris Opéra (Théâtre de l’Academie Royale de Musique) on March 26th 1827. Étienne had presented Rossini with a four-act libretto of seven hundred verses! Appalled, maybe even overwhelmed, Rossini called on the younger Hippolyte-Louis-Florent Bis who reduced the work to more manageable proportions and re-wrote the highly praised second act. Rossini asked Armand Marrast to recast the vital section at the end of Act 2 where the representatives of the three Cantons assemble and agree to revolt against the tyranny of Governor Gesler.  This is a scene that draws from Rossini some of his most memorable music in an opera of much melodic and dramatic felicity.  The opera was premiered at the Théâtre de l’Academie Royale de Musique, the Paris Opéra, on August 3rd 1829.

As well as the greater complexity of the orchestration, the tessitura of the role of Arnold gave Nouritt, the scheduled tenor difficulties, and after the premiere he started to omit the great act four-aria Asile héréditaire, and its cabaletta. Soon further reductions and mutilations were inflicted on the score. Within a year it was presented in three abbreviated acts. Further insults followed when Act 2 only was given as a curtain raiser to ballet performances composed by other composers! An often reproduced anecdote relates how Rossini met the director of the Paris 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?

Given the cost of performances of such length as the uncut version of William Tell, WNO have like many such efforts, made judicious cuts to the score,. In this case. Director David Pountney along with expert Rossinian conductor Carlo Rizzi, who has twice served as Music Directory of WNO and was making a welcome return to WNO yet again, have managed to reduce the work without destroying its fundamental elements and ensuring we all have the opportunity of reaching our beds before midnight.

As I reported in my review of WNO’s performance of Rossini’s Naples opera seria Mosé in Egitto of 1818, played the previous night with the same Director and Set Designer, as well as several singers, this was the first time for many years that I have had the pleasure of seeing two operas in the same week that I had never before seen live. I am delighted to report that despite the rarity of the works the Venue Cymru was as near full as it was for Bizet’s potboiler, Carmen. Using the same basic set as for Mosé in Egitto, with different gauze frontage of a mountainous scene to the movable units, made economic sense. We saw more of the back of the movable units than the previous evening, not pretty but practicable, and these enabled Director Pountney to move the story through its several scenes without undue hold ups and particularly in respect of the scenes involving the chorus. I was highly enthusiastic about the contribution of Welsh National’s Chorus in my review of Mosé in Egitto. If they were excellent in that performance they were simply outstanding in this in both their vibrant well articulated singing as well as their acted involvement. Those qualities are attributable to the Chorus Master, David Pountney and also Carlo Rizzi who must have spent a lot of time with them. He is an outstanding conductor of music from his native Italy.. For me this brought back memories of the first time I was invited to review a Welsh National Opera production. It was of Verdi’s great five act opera Don Carlos a decade ago. Like William Tell it was composed for the Paris Opéra. In the case of that Don Carlos, premiered in 1865, Carlo Rizzi produced a performing edition involving music that had been thought lost. His work and conducting brought eulogies from many of the cognoscenti. The same eulogies are deserved for his contribution to this unique Rossini opera composed for the same venue, and involving the de-rigeur ballet interludes, performed athletically on this occasion to Rizzi’s tempi. The maestro’s sympathy and understanding of this work was evident right from the start of the popular overture with its variations of tempo and involvement from the different sections of the orchestra and solo cello placed on stage.

Given the length of the opera Rizzi, and I assume Pountney, have made judicious cuts to E C Bartlett’s Critical Edition to bring the performance to under four hours. Even with cuts, the opening two acts lasted just short of two hours. Albeit even on the not over-comfortable seats of the Venue Cymru they passed without longeurs, a fact contributed to by the quality of the solo singing as well as the chorus and orchestra already mentioned. The eponymous role doesn’t get the biggest sing or the best music;  nonetheless it was brought to its important dramatic reality by the singing and physical presence of WNO regular David Kempster. At the other end of the size scale, Barry Banks as Arnold gets all the high notes and a lot to sing. I first heard him as a student in the early nineteen seventies singing Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It says much for his skill as a singer,and his careful choice of repertoire that he has enjoyed a considerable international career in roles that demand secure florid coloratura technique allied to pleasing tonal security and sound. All were in evidence in this performance. As his lover the Austrian Princess Mathilde, in a very elegant costume that contrasted with those of the oppressed Swiss, sang with clear beauty and clarity of tone. These qualities were also evident in Leah-Marian Jones as Hedwige, Tell’s wife, and the well-acted assumption of their son Jemmy by Fflur Wyn.

The whole action had added reality by the costumes being of the period of the work’s composition, except (wholly out of character and unnecessary) having the brutal Gesler trundle about in a wheelchair circa 1950. In the role, bass Clive Bayley started with a touch of vocal wooliness that soon passed to reveal his characteristic lean saturnine sonority, the element of meanness being wholly fitting to the character. Nicky Spence, Richard Wiegold and Luciano Botelho realized their lesser roles well, like the principals, making light of the demands of singing in the French language.

At the end of a memorable evening the audience gave as good and long ovation as I have heard at Venue Cymru. It was fully deserved, and for this opera addict was a fitting conclusion to a duo of Rossini masterpieces that do not get seen as often as their music and dramatic nature deserve.

Robert J Farr 

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