Rossini's William Tell
More than an Overture
by arwulf arwulf
From the December, 2014 issue
Attention opera lovers: on December 9, the orchestra, soloists, and chorus of the Royal Theatre of Turin will deliver a concert performance of Gioachino Rossini's William Tell, a seldom-staged work of epic proportions. Guillaume Tell, as it was originally titled, is a French opera by an Italian composer based on a German play set in early fourteenth-century Switzerland. The last of Rossini's thirty-nine operas, it was derived from Friedrich Schiller's final completed play, Wilhelm Tell, a moving dramatization of the Swiss people's struggle for autonomy under oppressive Habsburg rule.
The notorious scene where rebellious Tell is forced to shoot an apple off his son's head by order of Austrian bailiff Albrecht Gessler--a horrifying example of politically motivated sadism--has unfortunately been trivialized over the years, as has the opera's overture, a dynamic tone poem similar to Tchaikovsky's bombastic glorification of the military events of 1812. Both overtures begin with richly scored strings; Rossini entrusts the opening of his lengthiest opus to a resonant pack of cellos.
The ensuing "storm" episode has long been used as a stock arrangement for cartoons and cheesy scenarios, as has the bucolic idyll that follows. This gorgeous melody, intoned by English horn and flute, was distilled from the Kuhreihen or Ranz des Vaches, the Alpine herder's call to the dairy cows. The hammering, trumpet-driven "March of the Swiss Soldiers" has suffered more abuse than any other portion of Rossini's oeuvre, serving as grist for radio adventure serials, novelty acts, and even Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of Anthony Burgess' dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange. Rossini is often remembered chiefly as a composer of finely crafted overtures; here's your chance to experience the most famous of them live and in context for a change.
In the poetry of Schiller and the musicality of Rossini, the panoramic landscape surrounding Lake Lucerne is painted larger than life. Dispensing with stage sets, maestro Gianandrea Noseda will focus on Rossini's orchestration and the wonders of the human voice. Originally more than
four hours in duration, William Tell demands Olympic stamina and resilience from its singers, particularly the tenor cast as Arnold Melchtal, for this role has taken its toll on many a brave vocalist.
With a work of this length, cuts are expected. While Act II has the most in common with Schiller's play and is least likely to undergo surgery, the ballet music in Act III won't be heard. Note also that what's to be performed at Hill Auditorium is not the French-language Guillaume Tell but Guglielmo Tell, sung in Italian with English supertitles.
[Originally published in December, 2014.]
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