William Tell, in concert, Prom 2, Royal Albert Hall, July 2011

This opera is Rossini’s last, fulfilling a commission for a grand opera made five years earlier when he took up residence in Paris. The press had been buzzing with information on its progress, and in his book on Rossini, Francis Toye tells us that “On August 3rd, 1829, it was finally produced before an audience bursting with curiosity. …  boxes were said to have changed hands for as much as five hundred francs … [and] though [it] was hailed with a salvo of applause by every musician and critic of note, the public remained comparatively indifferent, judging the opera as a whole to be long, cold and boring”. It is long — nearly four hours of music — and usually sustains various cuts. This performance was no exception, but it was gloriously played and sung by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome, conducted by their music director Antonio Pappano, who also directs our own Royal Opera at Covent Garden.

William Tell is a legendary archer, forced to shoot an apple placed on his son’s head, and the opera is based on Schiller’s 1804 play, in which Tell’s actions help inspire a successful insurrection against Austrian rule. Whether he and his nemesis, the tyrannical Austrian reeve, Gesler, really existed is an open question, and the story of an archer who was compelled to shoot an apple from his son’s head goes back to a Danish tale in the Gestae Danorum (Deeds of the Danes) written by Saxo Grammaticus in the late twelfth century, in which the archer was named Toke, and the oppressor was King Harald Bluetooth. As in the Tell story the archer takes two arrows from his quiver and after succeeding with the first one is asked the meaning of the second one. He responds that if the first one killed his son, the second was for the oppressor himself, and he’s then condemned to death.

Historically it’s a fact that in 1273, Rudolf I of Habsburg revoked the Reichsfreiheit enjoyed by the Cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, and there was a tradition that William Tell’s insurrection took place in the early 14th century. He’s a local hero, and in 1895 a bronze statue to him was erected in Altdorf, the capital of Uri.

The Schiller drama includes an important love interest. The young Arnold, a friend of Tell, is in love with Princess Mathilde of Habsburg, and sympathetic to Austria as a consequence. But learning that Gesler has killed his father he joins the rebels, and after Tell and his son are condemned to death, Mathilde places the boy under her royal protection. The role of Arnold with its multitude of high notes is a difficult one, and was brilliantly sung by John Osborn, with a glorious heroic tinge to his voice. His opening Act IV aria Ne m’abandonne pas elicited justifiably huge applause. Tell’s son Jemmy was sung with great purity and clarity by Elena Xanthoudakis, and Mark Stone stood out in the baritone role of Leuthold, as did Nicolas Courjal in the bass role of Gesler. The other principals and soloists were all strong, and the chorus was magnificent. When they played the role of Swiss Confederates at the end of scene 2 in Act IV the audience gave them tremendous applause.

I find it ironic, not to say amusing, that this opera on freedom from oppression — whose last line is Liberté, redescends des cieux — was produced in Paris in 1829, the year before the second French revolution when the last Bourbon King of France was exiled. However, it went past the censor unscathed, though the Papal States were not as lenient, and as for northern Italy there was predictable trouble with the Austrian authorities — in Milan the hero became William Wallace, the oppressors were the English, and the scene with the apple was taken out.

Rossini’s music for William Tell is fascinating, and one can even see ways in which it foreshadows Wagner — certainly Wagner himself congratulated Rossini on this! It was much admired by other composers, and I’m delighted that Antonio Pappano has brought it to the Proms, and given us such a wonderful performance. The start of the overture with those five solo cellos, and the wonderful horn calls around the upper reaches of the auditorium in the first scene, were gripping. The audience loved it, and time seemed to fly, but what a pity there were so many empty seats.

Leave a Comment