Recordings > Editor's Choice

Rossini: Guillaume Tell

spacer Howarth, Stafford, Volpe; Foster-Williams, Spyres, Sayan, Di Pierro, Facciolà; Camerata Bach Chor, Virtuosi Brunensis, Fogliani. Production: Schönleber. Bongiovanni AB 20029 (2 discs), 235 mins., subtitled

Tell Tale’s Heart.

Everyone conspicuously does his or her best in this first complete video recording of Rossini’s masterpiece.

Video William Tell Cover 915

There’s more than one reason to be happy with this “very first complete performance of Rossini’s masterpiece since its premiere” (as the DVD box so proudly — and probably accurately — touts it), staged in July 2013 at Germany’s annual Rossini in Wildbad festival for its twenty-fifth-anniversary season. That quote tells you the first reason. For the second, cue up disc one and listen to the crisp, alert account of the overture by the Virtuosi Brunensis (from Brno), under the baton of the festival’s music director, Antonino Fogliani. Watching it is another matter: here’s a capital example of that tired gimmick overture-as-prequel, with Mathilde and Gesler — as they turn out to be — gussied-up in modern-day duds (hers exceedingly tacky), taking seats to watch two onstage cellists play the opera’s opening bars: Mathilde makes eyes at a lurking Arnold; placard-bearing political protesters (“Liberté!,” “Égalité”) get a trouncing by thugs of the powers-that-be; and, finally, two young girls roll around in, then run around waving, a pair of white sheets. The start of the opera proper elicits more groans, as the “villagers” carry on stacks of plastic patio chairs and distribute them over the very unoutdoorsy-looking stage. (There’s nary a whiff of Swiss nature, so vividly evoked by Rossini, in Robert Schrag’s downright ugly sets, just as there seems to be not much of an opera-house ambience to Wildbad’s Neue Trinkhalle, the festival’s home.)

But then something begins to happen: I found myself increasingly disarmed by the let’s-put-on-a-show aspect of the enterprise, the unmistakable feeling that everyone onstage was there to do his or her best for Rossini’s opera. There’s a sense of communal bonding that happily matches the opera’s message. The Act I dances, while no choreographic wonder, feel like a real folk ritual; so do those in Act III, with the added urgency of leering enforcement by the tyrant Gesler. They unfold naturally, without the air of a de rigueur divertissement. Jochen Schönleber, the festival’s artistic director, is also the director of this Tell, and despite my many reservations about his mode of presentation, his devotion to the composer and his score are seldom in question: he tells the opera’s Schiller-derived story clearly and cogently.

The cast does its job honorably — if likely with less glamour and panache than Danise, Martinelli, Ponselle, Didur, et al. supplied at a notable 1923 revival at the Met, which, shamefully, has not staged even a wrong-language, abridged Tell in eighty-four years. Andrew Foster-Williams, a singer whose work I’ve repeatedly enjoyed at Washington National Opera, is a stringently committed Guillaume Tell, more modern-day zealot than classical hero; though the role’s tessitura isn’t entirely accommodating to his lean bass-baritone, he ultimately hits his mark, as befitting a legendary archer. In the difficult role of Arnold, Michael Spyres seems decidedly happier than he did at Caramoor a year earlier; it still doesn’t sound easy (and he eschews a capping high C in his Act IV “Amis, secondez la vengeance”), but he does the job. 

Judith Howarth, wearing a series of ghastly costumes, sounds much better than she looks, singing Mathilde with warmth, accuracy and even a certain elegance; and Spyres’s real-life wife, Tara Stafford, is notably good in this expanded — i.e., uncut — account of Jemmy, with the Act III aria and Act IV trio intact. Alessandra Volpe is an especially fine Hedwige. The handsome-voiced, dual-cast Nahuel Di Pierro is far more convincing as a young, vigorous Furst than as a doddering Melcthal. (Note the absence in the principal cast of a single native francophone.) Fogliani keeps the show kicking, and there wasn’t a note I would have omitted.   

A starrier uncut Guillaume Tell followed a month later, in Pesaro, in a not dissimilar staging by Graham Vick, and Decca’s release of that production is doing the same on DVD. But Wildbad’s got there first, and if it’s the first you get hold of, I doubt you’ll be much disappointed. —Patrick Dillon 

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