Guillaume Tell, BBC Proms

No one would claim that, Riccardo Muti notwithstanding,
‘serious’ Rossini was in fashion. On the basis of this Proms
concert performance of Guillaume Tell, I cannot say that I feel
deprived. Indeed I should express unalloyed relief, were it not for the fact
that its place tends to be assumed by less rather than more interesting works.
Schiller’s wonderful play, Wilhelm Tell, becomes something
tedious and uninvolving – and, moreover, tedious and uninvolving at very
great length. One gains no real sense of the characters as characters, of why
one should or even might care about them. Now it might well be that individual
psychology is not the point; it certainly is not in, say, Fidelio. Yet
there one has a noble, overwhelming instantiation of the bourgeois idea of
freedom at its greatest. Here one has interminable exchanges between men from
different Swiss cantons ramble on uninspiringly about a Swiss fatherland, but
never with fervour, lest Rossini’s monarchist protectors become alarmed.
The nationalism – or, perhaps better, caricatured anti-German sentiment
– is so preposterous that one can only hope nobody took it seriously even
at the time. Certainly if this were a German work and the boot were on the
other foot, we should expect howls of protest. The romantic element, between
the Habsburg princess Mathilde, who rejects the wicked governor Gessler, and
Arnold Meuchtal, a Swiss conspirator, is implausible – and implausible at
great length. And how much lolling about in the sun by peasants can anyone
reasonably be expected to take? Music can express languor very well; think of
Debussy. Here, however, it less expresses boredom than becomes lamentably
nondescript – at, you guessed it, inordinate length. Indeed, the entire
first act could be cut without the slightest harm to the plot; on this
occasion, it was the fourth that suffered, being cut down to twenty minutes,
creating the rather odd impression of a rush to the finishing line far too
late. I have never attended an operatic performance at which so many in the
audience were constantly checking their watches, nor, indeed, in which so many
leaped to their feet and departed, as soon as the performance was over, not
even waiting to engage in the most desultory applause.

So much for the work: I was genuinely interested to have the rare
opportunity to hear it, but now do not feel the need to do so again. What of
the performances? Antonio Pappano had his moments, perhaps more so in the crowd
control of the choral exchanges, or some of the recitative passages. Yet I
could not help but wonder what a conductor such as Muti would have brought to
the work; perhaps his iron grip might have had one believe in something as
implausible as this. Even the overture failed to impress. It is sectional, of
course, but surely a conductor ought to try to mask that just a little; there
was no discernible attempt at transition whatsoever. The storm section was
absurdly hard-driven, and the whole quite lacked charm, despite some fine
woodwind playing from the Santa Cecilia orchestra. Though the strings on
occasion sounded a little feeble here, they were on good form for most of what
was to come. To have members of the orchestra take solo bows following the
overture was straightforwardly bizarre.

Michele-Pertusi--and-John-O.gifMichele Pertusi (William Tell) and John Osborn (Arnold Melchthal)

Vocal performance remained. The choral singing was generally very good
indeed, and improved as the night went on: Ciro Visco is clearly an excellent
choral trainer. Michele Pertusi, sad to say, made a dull Tell. Someone
charismatic in this role might have pulled off a miracle, but that was not to
be. Most of the rest of the cast outshone him, not least John Osborn’s
outstanding Arnold, his fourth-cast aria, ‘Asile hÈrÈditaire’,
proving the evening’s high-point: sweetly and elegantly sung. (Pappano
should not, however, have allowed the prolonged intrusion of applause
thereafter.) Elena Zanthoudakis sang well as Jemmy, Tell’s son, though
her French vowels often left a good deal to be desired. The wideness of
Patricia Bardon’s vibrato as Hedwige, Tell’s wife, would not have
been to all tastes, and was certainly not to mine. Bar the odd unfortunate
moment, such as a culiminating shriek in her Act II Scene 3 exchange with
Arnold, Malin Bystrˆm proved impressive as Mathilde, her coloratura almost
always precise and tasteful, though the end of the third act brought some
notably flat singing. Nicolas Courjal’s Gessler in many ways came the
closest to a convincing portrayal of character, certainly as close as one could
imagine, suavity of line and demeanour suggesting a more sophisticated
malevolence than one might have expected.

The singing, then, or rather some of the singing, was the only real point of
interest. I can imagine that a staged performance with an outstanding conductor
– a Muti or an Abbado – and an interesting, properly deconstructive
production – from, say, a Stefan Herheim or a Peter Konwitschny –
might work wonders, though I suspect one would tend to think that such talents
would be better employed elsewhere. At least the celebrated scene with the
apple, for which everyone not unreasonably appeared to be waiting, might elicit
some sort of impact, whereas in concert, one merely notes the lack thereof. I
am far from a Rossini devotee, but give me the sparkle of Il barbiere di
any day over this, and if it must be grand opÈra, then
Rienzi, which boasts some truly extraordinary music, let alone the
masterpieces of Berlioz. Even Meyerbeer if necessary… I could not help
but think of Wagner’s Opera and Drama, in which he portrays
nineteenth-century opera as having degenerated into a chaotic farrago of
different elements, randomly mixed and presented, permitting each spectator
choosing whatever took his fancy: ‘Here the dainty leap of a ballerina,
there the singer’s daring passage-work, here the set-painter’s
brilliant effect, there the amazing eruption of an orchestral volcano.’
In this way, Wagner, claimed, composers such as Rossini had become the toast of
the ‘entire civilised world’, and acquired the protection of Prince
Metternich (the Austrian Prince Metternich, be it noted) and his
European System, reinforcing rather than questioning the social order. Such a
work, then, is undoubtedly of historical importance; its modern-day interest,
however, largely escaped me.

Mark Berry

image_description=Antonio Pappano conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia [Photo by Chris Christodoulou.courtesy of the BBC]
product_title=Gioacchino Rossini, Guillaume Tell
product_by=William Tell: Michele Pertusi; Arnold Melchthal: John Osborn; Walter Furst: Matthew Rose; Melchthal: FrÈdÈric Caton; Jemmy: Elena Xanthoudakis; Gessler: Nicolas Courjal; Rodolphe: Carlo Bosi; Ruodi: Celso Albelo; Leuthold: Mark Stone; Mathilde: Malin Bystrˆm; Hedwige: Patricia Bardon; Huntsman: Davide Malvestio, Chorus and Academy of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome (chorus master: Ciro Visco), Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Prom 2, Saturday 16 July 2011.
product_id=Above: Antonio Pappano conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia

Photos by Chris Christodoulou.courtesy of the BBC