Rossini’s last opera, Guillaume Tell, was written for Paris and is an extremely ambitious piece of great musical sophistication. It’s also very long. Performed uncut, a rarity, it runs something like four hours including ballets. It’s also hard to cast with the role of Arnold Melcthal in particular making unusual demands. It’s a high tenor role combining the flexibility needs of a typical Rossini role with something much more heroic. The soprano role of Mathilde has some of the same issues; signature Rossini coloratura is combined with the sort of dramatic heft one might more associate with early Wagner.
In 2013 it was presented in all its glory at the Pesaro Rossini Festival in a production by Graham Vick. The production was updated to the beginning of the 20th century and set around a hypothetical Habsburg invasion of Switzerland. The ballets, originally presented as divertissements, were fully incorporated into the action. It’s an intriguing production, not at all naturalistic and asking all kinds of questions about national identity and personal loyalty. The unit set is basically a big white box with a gallery and, most of the time, lots of earth. Raging torrents, burning houses and the like are hinted at rather than played big. There are several weird and even disturbing scenes. In Act 1 the weddings are very odd indeed involving piggy backs, blindfolds and lots of shoes. In Act 2, the hunters seem to have been out hunting Swiss children (something that the libretto alludes to but probably wasn’t meant literally) and the Act 3 “village scene” is staged as a rather grand party at which representative Swiss are humiliated in various ways. This is a very long scene and combines sadistic and surreal in a very disturbing way. There’s also a lot of violence in the libretto which isn’t shied away from in the production. All in all, right down to a rather spectacular coup de theâtre at the very end, the production does a good job of telling the story, albeit in a non-literal way, rarely bores and is often quite visceral. That said, I think if I was putting this piece on there would be cuts. There are places where musically everything that can be said has been and yet it gets repeated three more times.
Musically this is a very complex and sophisticated piece unlike anything else by Rossini that I’m familiar with. The solo vocal writing combines familiar elements with stylistic touches that seem to look forward beyond bel canto. But it’s the ensemble and choral writing that really impresses. It’s Mozartian in the way it interweaves different lines in a structurally coherent way. I kept thinking back to the Act 2 sextet in Figaro but here the music is grander and often the chorus is involved too. There’s one section where a quartet of soloists sing against a complex choral part that is quite staggering. The choral writing too is extremely complex, rather prefiguring Wagner. Certainly more demanding than most Verdi works. One has to keep reminding oneself that this was written in 1829 not 50 years later.
All the principals in this recording are quite excellent. It’s anchored around a very solid performance by Nicola Alaimo in the title role. He’s bluff, powerful and accurate. Arnold is sung by Juan Diego Flórez, who must be one of the few people who could sing it. It’s a typical JDF performance. The top notes wring out beautifully, he’s ardent and looks the part. It’s also JDF playing JDF. All the stock gestures are there. Marina Rebeka is a wonderful Mathilde. She totally looks the part and navigates the various emotional and musical demands faultlessly. “Sombre forêt” is gorgeous and in “Pour notre amour” she shifts effortlessly from machine gun coloratura (most tastefully ornamented) to long spun out legato lines quite seamlessly. The big duet with JDF is also fantastic. There are very fine performances too from Amanda Forsythe as a very convincing Jemmy, Veronica Simeoni as Hedwige, Simon Orfila as Furst and Simone Alberghini as the elder Melcthal. To round things out Luca Tittolo provides a deeply disturbing, completely mad Gessler. Despite there being scarcely a francophone in the cast the French diction is almost universally very good.
The chorus has a ton of singing to do in this piece and, in Vick’s production, plenty of acting too. I’ve seen some pretty ropey performances from the chorus in big Italian houses but here the chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna are splendid in every respect. They are matched by fine playing by the orchestra from the same theatre. Michele Mariotti conducts in a way that consistently builds up tension when needed and even manages to get some life into the sometimes dull music for the ballets. There are some orchestral interludes, especially in the first act, that are really quiet, almost to inaudibility. I don’t know whether this was deliberate or an artefact of the recording.
There’s a lot of dance in this piece. The ballets have to be handled of course but the dancers are used elsewhere to effect too. Mostly they get extremely modern and difficult choreography (Ron Howell) but there are more classical sections too. Considerable versatility and athleticism is required and provided. As so often, there’s no production credit for the dancers in the DVD materials but without them this would not be at all the same piece.
Technically this disk is a good modern recording. It was recorded in HD and comes with a very satisfactory DTS surround sound track. It’s also available on Blu-ray. Video direction is by Tiziano Mancini and is generally pretty good. There are perhaps a few too many shots from high up but generally shot selection is judicious and there are no annoying effects. There’s a handy 16 minute bonus track with interviews with various members of cast, crew and management that does provide some useful context. The essay in the booklet tells us more about the work than the production but there’s a full track listing and a cued synopsis. Subtitle options are English, French, German and Korean.
All in all this is a pretty compelling recording of an opera not much seen. The performances are terrific and the production consistently interesting though maybe not for the hard line traditionalist.