Operapedia: William Tell
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Operapedia: William Tell 

Henry Stewart knocks the top off Rossini’s underperformed masterpiece.

Operapedia William Tell lg 915   The Basics

The expert Swiss bowman of the title overthrows an Austrian tyrant, in part by shooting an apple off his own son’s head.

Time and Place

Rossini was a popular and prolific composer, writing thirty-nine operas in less than twenty years, most of them hits, including Il Barbiere di Siviglia. William Tell is his magnum opus, a dramatically profound work of music and theater, and something of a career-capping final statement — it was his last opera, though he lived almost another four decades and wrote some songs, piano music and religious works while suffering from manic depression, obesity, emphysema and chronic gonorrhea. The reasons for his retirement still divide historians. In 1868, he died, after two surgeries for colorectal cancer left him with a fatal infection.

First Performances 

The work, written in French, had its premiere in Paris on August 3, 1829; an Italian version, Guglielmo Tell, made its debut in 1831 and quickly became more popular. In its second season, the Met performed Tell in German (as was the company’s custom at the time) for the work’s house debut in November 1884. Tell was first performed in New York in another language — English! — in 1831. The opera is often truncated, because it contains Götterdämmerung amounts of music; its length — as well as changing tastes and other factors that condemned Rossini’s noncomic works to obscurity until the 1960s — has contributed to its rareness, especially in the past eighty years: it’s been seen at the Met only thirty-one times, the last time in 1931, around the time it also fell out of the Parisian repertory.


Operapedia Rossini lg 915 

Operapedia Lanza lg 915  ☜ Reactions

“I must admit that the whole piece is rendered with unquestionable superiority, such verve as Rossini had not yet shown,” Berlioz wrote, “and that the William Tell overture is a work of immense talent that resembles nothing so much as genius.” History has generally agreed, but there have also been detractors, including a character in the hardboiled novelist James M. Cain’s Serenade, who tells another, “The William Tell Overture is the worst piece of music ever written.…There’s no music in it of any kind.” The interlocutor more or less agrees — even though he spends the next several pages championing Rossini! (Mario Lanza played the character in the 1956 film adaptation, which had hardly anything to do with the 1937 homoerotic source novel.) 


Spoiler Alerts

Everyone knows the story of the guy who shot an apple that was sitting atop somebody’s head. Fewer know the full legend of the archer, a political rebel who helped to unite Switzerland in the fourteenth century. Though the opera is based on an 1804 play by Schiller, the story originated hundreds of years earlier. Tell’s folk-hero popularity was renewed at the turn of the nineteenth century, in part as a result of post-Napoleonic patriotism. The opera advocates putting politics first, arguing that all else follows. Unlike, say, Bellini’s Norma, who selfishly uses politics for her own romantic ends and winds up dead, Arnold forswears love for duty, and Tell does what’s right for his country before his family; in the end, they both get everything they want and live happily ever after.

Operapedia William Tell Mickey lg 915  In Pop Culture
While the finale may be the most famous segment of the overture, it features several other well-known parts, including a mournful prelude for sonorous strings. It was inventively arranged for horns for the 1935 Walt Disney short “The Band Concert,” in which conductor Mickey Mouse tries to prevent a flute-playing Donald Duck from interrupting his ensemble’s performance of the overture, from the Ranz des Vaches (with its instantly recognizable melody, aurally synonymous with waking up) to the Storm. Mickey’s mere performance of the latter generates a town-destroying tornado.
Operapedia William Tell Duck lg 915 


Operapedia Burroughs lg 915  ☜ Something Completely Different

The beat writer William S. Burroughs attempted his own William Tell in a Mexico City apartment in 1951, eight years before he published Naked Lunch. Burroughs, drunk, asked his wife, Joan, also drunk, to balance a glass on her head, then stood about nine feet away and fired his pistol. (Burroughs was a gun nut, armed more often than not.) He missed the glass by a few inches, instead hitting his wife in the forehead. She died, and he fled the country; in absentia, he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years, which he never served.




Hit Tune

The emotional and symphonic four-part overture is far better known and more often programmed than the opera itself. It’s best known for the brassy, galloping finale, “March of the Swiss Soldiers,” made iconic for whole generations as the theme for The Lone Ranger; thereafter, it became every unimaginative music editor’s go-to for chase scenes — or, in the case of Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, a fast-motion sexual encounter with multiple partners.

Operapedia William Tell Lone Ranger lg 915 



Operapedia Match Point William Tell 915 

☝︎ Surprise Showstopper
Tell and the romantic hero, Arnold, represent, respectively, the opera’s central concerns — political and romantic freedom. Their first duet, “Arresta.… Quali Sguardi” (or, en français, “Où vas-tu?… Quel transport t’agite?”) makes the conflict plain, as Arnold worries about his forbidden love for the Hapsburg princess Mathilde and Tell urges him to join the rebellion. The shifting musical styles across nine minutes evoke the rhythms of conversation. When Woody Allen used it in Match Point, while Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johansson French kiss at the Royal Opera House, he stripped it of its political meaning, merely making use of its romance.


Operapedia William Tell Duprez lg 915   The Performance We Wish We’d Seen

“It was the greatest triumph of the sort that I had ever seen at the Opéra,” wrote Berlioz in 1837 of tenor Gilbert Duprez’s performance in Paris as Arnold, in which the singer sang his high notes from the chest, which he was the first to do. Berlioz described it like it was the Beatles at Shea Stadium, the crowd going so crazy you couldn’t even hear the music, and he compared its extraordinariness to the French premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth (you know, just one of the greatest pieces of music ever). “Art cannot, must not, venture any further,” he wrote.


Where It is This Season
Following a controversial production at Covent Garden this summer, Tell opens the season this month in Geneva, suggesting that the Swiss shaftsman’s story still resonates there. No more productions are scheduled until March, when the Germans undertake it in Hamburg. This opera deserves more!

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