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Byström, Xanthoudakis, Lemieux; Finley, Osborn, Rose, Cigni, Caton; Chorus and Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Pappano. Text and translation. EMI 50999 0 28826 2 (3)
The place of Guillaume Tell in opera history is secure, even if its place in the everyday repertory is not. Antonio Pappano's live recording is taken from concert performances given in Rome in 2010. He also conducted it at the Proms in London last July, again in a concert version. Given Pappano's admirable advocacy for keeping Tell in front of the public, it is puzzling that his conducting of it is so patchy.
For every number that he does well, such as the cheerful yodeling quality he brings to the ballet music after the "Toi que l'oiseau" chorus in Act III, or the way he shapes the tripartite men's trio "Quand l'Helvétie est un champ de supplices," or the beautiful grazioso mood at curtain-rise, there is another number that proves disappointing. The final section of the great love duet in Act II is taken so fast that the singers don't even attempt to do the ornamental turns. Unwritten accelerandos abound, even though Rossini knew how to write one when he wanted one. Rossini scholar Philip Gossett called the Act I ensemble "Vierge que les chrétiens adorent" one of Rossini's finest; it does not seem so in Pappano's under-characterized, flabby performance.
Most dispiriting of all is the way the opera's finale is undermined. Pappano leads it in an ambling, undirected way, missing all the majesty. Rossini's finale is not one of his bombastic moments. Rather, for this epic historical opera, it is noble, spiritual and patriotic. Pappano conducts it for all the world as if there were a union orchestra on the clock and no way to pay for overtime.
The finale is also ineffective because Act IV has been grievously truncated. Both the women's trio "Je rends à votre amour," an entrancing wind-accompanied piece, and the prayer "Toi, qui du faible es l'espérance," a duet with women's chorus, are missing. There's a tiny bit of justification for omitting the former, since Rossini regretfully sanctioned this for reasons of time, but it is a stunning piece. (Audiences don't often call for encores of ensemble numbers, as opposed to arias, but the audience at a concert Tell at Caramoor last July wanted to hear this one again.)
These two deletions make it difficult to evaluate the performances of the female singers here. Marie-Nicole Lemieux was choice casting for Tell's wife, Hedwige, and would likely have excelled in the tricky writing of the trio, but there is nothing left of her role. Malin Byström, the Mathilde, begins her role with dark, troubled colorings and a general lack of focus in pitching and phrasing, but when she fines down her voice for some difficult runs in Act III she gets some pinpoint accuracy. She might have given a well-rounded portrayal if she had been allowed to sing her two numbers in Act IV.
The other singers have mastered some severe demands in their roles. Matthew Rose's Walter is a stern, reliable anchor for the men's trio. Carlo Cigni, as the villain Gesler, is at first small and unresonant of voice, but later he admirably leads off the big Act III finale, building in rage after Tell performs his famous feat. John Osborn does more than merely survive the killer tenor role of Arnold. He offers a fuller, pleasanter tone than we often get in the Rossini repertoire, and his beautiful, hushed opening of "Ses jours qu'ils ont" is a highlight. Rossini would have been pleased that he blooms, rather than bellows, on the high C of "Asile héréditaire."
Lamberto Gardelli's 1972 audio recording remains the only uncut Tell in French in any format. If there is a reason to spend an evening with Pappano's instead, it is the performance of Gerald Finley in the title role. This is not to slight Gabriel Bacquier's Tell for Gardelli, a portrayal that combines warmth, gravity and elegance in a way that will surprise listeners who only know Bacquier's work in comic roles. But Finley's Tell, noble and intensely personal, is perhaps even more attuned to the specific opera at hand. Finley doesn't save his energy for the showiest solo moments. He is consistently giving a detailed performance even in places such as the busy Act III ensemble. In Act II, he is utterly engaged by the drama. In a perfect world, the Met would book three months of Mr. Finley's time and build two new productions, to showcase his Tell and his aching, multidimensional Golaud in Pelléas et Mélisande. And Tell cries out to be staged. It would be stunning just as written, but the libretto, the work of four authors, would stand up to multiple interpretations. It tells us that the way to oppress a nation is to take away the culture — the dances, the festivals, the wedding rites. Tell's achievements as an archer and an oarsman are celebrated as artistic pursuits. These ideas are so old that they're new again.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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