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Rossini: William Tell

Born in the Uri Canton towards the end of the 13th century, William Tell was a hero whose noble, courageous acts (the most famous of which was shooting an apple off his son’s head with a crossbow) led the Swiss to rise up against Hapsburg domination and achieve independence in 1308. Gioachino Rossini’s last opera, based on the drama by Schiller, has undoubtedly contributed more than any other work to celebrating the fame of Tell’s legendary figure. A triumph at its 1829 premiere in Paris, if the work were performed in its entirety it would last some six hours.

Divided into four acts that include choreographic sequences, dances and spectacular crowd scenes, it signaled the birth of that wildly successful, totally French genre known as Grand-Opéra. Besides the celebrated overture, and the equally famous finale, the opera contains sublime passages of an intensity and beauty that sped the arrival of the imminent 19th century musical Romanticism. Along with an outstanding cast (John Osborn will sing Arnold, as in the 2007 edition, while Gerald Finley will perform the title role) – Antonio Pappano returns to the podium with the Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia to inaugurate the 2010-2011 Symphonic Season in grand style. And the whole extraordinary event will all be recorded live and immortalized by EMI.


Tickets go on sale online, at box offices and in the usual points of sale beginning on 21 September.

Orchestra e Coro dell'Accademia di Santa Cecilia
Antonio Pappano

Gerald Finley
Guillaume, baritone
John Osborn Arnold, tenor
Malin Byström Mathilde, soprano
Elena Xanthoudakis Jemmy, soprano 

  Guillaume Tell
opera in concert form
Presentation at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia of Rossini’s last opera William Tell, composed in Paris in 1829, benefits from the special sponsorship of Breguet, watchmakers known the world over for the beauty and prestige of their watches. Montres Breguet has been involved in the world of European art and culture for many years, and it is pleased to support quality opera. There is a particular bond linking Breguet to Rossini: his timepiece. In effect, Rossini was like many other artists (Stendhal, Mérimée, Pushkin, Balzac, Dumas, Thackeray and Hugo to name just a few), a passionate connoisseur and faithful client of the brand. As his secretary recorded, Rossini was given a Breguet watch by Spanish banker Alejandro Maria Aguado after the resounding success of William Tell.
visit Rossini's pages at
For the three performances of William Tell, from 16-20 October MUSA (the Museum of Musical Instruments of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia) will host a singular exhibition of the latest in Breguet watches.
in collaboration with

Palazzetto Bru Zane

Historical notes
Pierre-Luc Charles Cicéri. William Tell: Shooting at the Apple. Parigi, Bibliothéque-Musée de l'Opera
In 1824, at the height of the fame that had proclaimed him the greatest living opera composer, Rossini settled in Paris, taking on the job of ‘Directeur de la musique du Théâtre Royal Italien’ with the additional task of composing new operas for the Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique (the French Opéra). But the coveted score he was supposed to write expressly for the Paris stage got put off from year to year. Rossini seemed to feel the need to fully master the French musical atmosphere before risking such an eagerly-awaited professional step. In a sort of gradual approach, a series of works ensued: a new Italian opera on a French theme (The Journey to Rheims); a comic opera assembled from pre-existing music (Ivanhoé, Paris, Théâtre Royal de l’Odéon, 15 September 1826); two adaptations of Italian operas (The Seige of Corinth and Moses and Pharaoh); and a comic opera that was original only in appearance (Le Comte Ory), since most of its musical material came from the preceding Journey to Rheims.
Thus, from year to year, anticipation increased for what was already considered in advance to be an artistic event «de la plus grande importance», and when the upcoming debut of William Tell was at last announced in 1828, the Parisian public focused on it exclusively. Yet at the time, not even the libretto for the new opera was ready. After rejecting several texts by Scribe, including Gustav III (which was subsequently set to music by Auber and would become the basis for Verdi’s A Masked Ball), and La Juive (salvaged by Halévy), the choice fell back onto a libretto by venerable old dramatist Etienne de Jouy, rather prolix but scenically effective, written some time before but never used.
The author’s poor health obliged Rossini to commission the needed modifications from others. Emerging writer Hippolyte Bis, summoned to the task, had to maneuver between his fear of provoking the resentment of his aged colleague and the pressing requests of a composer aware of playing a decisive card with a new opera. How many others had a hand in reworking these verses is not given us to know. Rossini himself, calling up as always a convenient version after the fact, also let circulate the names of Armand Marrast and Isaac Adolphe Crèmieux. These two, future conspirators against Luigi Filippo as chance would have it, he indicated as responsible for the conspiracy scene in the second act. Adolphe Nouritt, the tenor who was to be the first to interpret the role of Arnold (with Laura Cinti-Damoreau as Mathilde and Henri Bernard Dabadie as Tell), seems to have given vent to his poetic inspiration, as he had previously for Le Comte Ory.
Delays in preparing the libretto, misunderstanding between the authors and various unforeseen events that interfered (including the leading lady’s pregnancy, compelling another postponement) only abetted Rossini’s game, since he had decided to take his time and take advantage of the exceptional circumstances, obtaining among other things a last-minute contract giving him economic security for his old age. An omen of his imminent withdrawal from the scene? The fact that William Tell wound up being Rossini’s last theatrical work has inevitably magnified the work’s significance over time, even more than the agonizing wait. But it seems that was merely a coincidence, pure chance. Said contract actually provided for Tell as the first of five operas to be composed over ten years. And while it is true that for some time Rossini aired the possibility of early retirement, and demanded and obtained the right to a lifetime income regardless of whether he produced any new scores, for months after Tell he pressed for a new libretto, which was to be about nothing less than Faust.
The July 1830 revolution, which overthrew constitutional order, cancelled commitments made by the preceding government and broke off all relations with the musician. When things calmed down and it was possible to reestablish contact with the new administration, the Opera had by then become the realm of rising star Giacomo Meyerbeer. And then, year after year, singing styles were changing, as were the plots of melodramas, let alone the direction operatic composition was taking. Having lost the chance at an exclusive contract, Rossini felt farther and farther away from the new direction things were taking – a course he himself had contributed to launching. Having chosen Tell, despite Rossini himself, as the definitive testament of his art, new generations found in it all the ingredients for launching a new and very successful season in opera theater. In the agonizing quest to create the masterpiece, which would bring to completion what he had begun with the French reconstructions of his apprenticeship, Rossini managed to regenerate himself, freeing himself more than anyone else of the “Rossinian” stereotypes by then spreading all over Europe.
Thus, though it was neither one nor the other, Tell virtually opened the way to French grand-opéra on the one hand, and to Romantic Italian melodrama on the other. The former found a model for the grandiose forms of historical drama, with its choral tableaux and divertissements, the immediate plasticity of certain scenic and musical effects; the latter made its own the capacity to depict inner states and feelings with a few passages in a prelude, in a brief introduction, as well as the ability to mold the vocal writing to the qualities of the character and his or her specific state of mind.
Yet Tell was still neither one nor the other; it was something more subtle and refined. The repeated use of preexisting thematic material, which was typical, for example, of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, finds a precedent in the ranz de vaches (songs of the Swiss herders) in William Tell – with the difference however, that in Rossini the folk material is not used realistically, but rather becomes the seed for original themes imbued with a common sonority, thus capable of giving the entire score a unique and distinctive musical hue. (The technique dated from at least the era of the Donna del Lago, another score in which nature and its characteristic sounds – in this case, the calls of hunting horns – provide the basic ingredients of the entire opera.) Regarding the new Italian vocal style, of which Tell would involuntarily open the way, we find ourselves before an even greater misunderstanding. Acquired for the repertories of theaters in Italy, over the years the score has been subjected to a real interpretative twist: cuts aimed at eliminating remnants of belcanto – like Mathilde’s virtuosic third act aria - and at creating a dramatic conciseness that was foreign to it, reduced the score to a sort of muted, quasi-Verdian work.
But above all, it was contamination with the vocal style that began in Italy in the ‘thirties – strongly colored singing that was more and more sonorous and stentorian, the expressive cord tightly strung – that decreed the transformation of William Tell into a forerunner of Il Trovatore. Masculine vocal style was particularly affected: the protagonist became the warhorse of major Verdian baritones, while the part of Arnold – written for a tenor contraltino of typically French shaded vocality like Nourrit’s (the same as in Le Comte Ory) – in the mouths of dramatic tenors became the most arduous in the repertory, due to the particularly acute tessitura which, intended for a light tenor, was at the very limits of human possibility for a singer attempting it forcefully.
The plot
Act One
The scene opens in a Swiss village in the canton of Uri: a few rustic cottages amidst the mountains, near a stream. William Tell stands off to one side, absorbed in thought, with his wife Hedwige and his young son Jemmy. Further off, a fisheman sings a song and a small crowd of farmers, hunters and villagers is about to celebrate the marriages of three pairs of sheepherders. As he prepares to give the blessing, the patriarch Melcthal exhorts his son Arnold to take a wife soon. Arnold recoils with irritation. His heart, in fact, beats in secret for a Hapsburg princess, Mathilde, who lives at the court of Gessler, the Austrian governor. He fell in love with her after saving her from an avalanche; but his feelings are hopeless, as they are separated by too great a difference in rank. And Mathilde is too close to Gessler, the hated tyrant oppressing the Swiss people.
As he tries to steal away, having heard the flourish of Gessler’s hunting horns and hoping thus to see his beloved again, Arnold encounters Tell, who invites him to join the rebels determined to free their country from the foreigner. Tell, unaware of Arnold’s passion, does not understand his agitation, but knows that the young man has enlisted in the enemy army so he attempts to restore his allegiance to the ideals of homeland and freedom. Arnold promises him that when the day comes to fight, he will join the rebels. Then, unobserved, he leaves. The wedding festivities begin and Melcthal urges the newlyweds to perpetuate the traditions of their forefathers through their offspring, while Tell, after cursing all tyrants, goes off in search of Arnold.
The celebrations continue, dancing begins, and Tell’s son Jemmy wins the archery contest with his crossbow. But the general exultation is brusquely interrupted by the shepherd Leuthold, who enters still grasping the bloody hatchet he has used to kill one of Gessler’s soldiers, who was attempting to rape his daughter. Pursued by the governor’s soldiers, Leuthold must get across the torrent to safety. The fisherman refuses to help him, so it is Tell who ferries him over to the other shore. As the boat moves away, the pursuing soldiers burst in, commanded by Rodolphe, who tries in vain to find out who is aiding Leuthold. Melcthal, who imposes silence on the populace, is arrested and dragged away.
Act Two
As night falls, in a deep valley on Four Cantons Lake, Gessler’s horn sounds as the hunters and shepherds return home. Princess Mathilde knows that Arnold has followed her; in truth, she loves him too. In the silence of the evening, she invokes moonrise so she can see where Arnold is. The young man soon hurries in and confesses his feelings to Mathilde: he loves her to the point that, unable to fulfill his dream, he will flee to foreign lands in search of oblivion or death. Mathilde exhorts him to go and cover himself with glory, so he can return victorious and marry her. They promise to meet again the next day. Mathilde exits, as Arnold is surprised by William and Walter, who try to dissuade him from his amorous passion and incite him to patriotic fervor by revealing that his father Melcthal has been killed by Gessler. Arnold, shattered, swears to fight alongside his compatriots against the oppressor. Representatives of several cantons meet and as day breaks, Tell leads them in swearing an oath together.
Act Three
In the ruins of an old chapel in the gardens of Altorf palace, Arnold confides to Mathilde his desire to avenge his father’s death. Though he is in love with her, he knows that the new political situation threatens to divide them forever. The young woman, desperate, implores him to save himself and begs him to flee, but Arnold is determined to defend his native soil. Meanwhile, echoes are heard from a festival Gessler has proclaimed in Altdorf village to celebrate the right of sovereignty the German empire has exercised for more than a century over Swiss lands. As a sign of submission, everyone must bow down to Gessler’s hat, which has been raised on a post in the square. During the ceremony, soldiers haul Tell and his son Jemmy before Gessler; the two have refused to kneel and pay homage. Rodolphe recognizes Tell as the man who rowed Leuthold to safety. Gessler orders Tell’s arrest but offers him a chance at liberty: if he can shoot an apple from his son’s head, they will both be freed.
Amidst the general consternation, Tell embraces his son and instructs him to remain perfectly still; then he passes the test brilliantly and the populace exults. Shaken, Tell drops to his knees in a near-faint and another arrow falls from the folds of his jacket. When Gessler demands an explanation, Tell confesses that it would have served to shoot him if he had missed his target. Furious, Gessler has Tell arrested once again and condemns him to death. At this point Mathilde intervenes, taking the boy Jemmy under her protection, as Tell is led away to his execution. The Swiss citizens curse Gessler’s cruelty.
Act Four
Arnold paces his paternal home, awaiting the moment for vengeance. The shouts of Swiss men coming in search of arms to liberate their hero reach him from outside. Arnold knows where his father had hidden weapons and leaves for battle with his companions. The scene returns to the shores of Four Cantons Lake, where a storm is building. A group of women attempt to hold back Tell’s wife, who wants to join her husband and son and die with them. But Jemmy reappears, safe and sound, accompanied by Mathilde. Soon afterwards, the tempest breaks out. Jemmy sets fire to the house to signal the start of the revolt to all the inhabitants of nearby villages, as Hedwige prays fervently to God to save Tell. As Tell is being transported to his execution, the storm intensifies. Tell manages to maneuver the boat near the shore and jump out onto the rocks; then he pushes the boat, with Gessler and his guards still aboard, back out onto the lake. Once he has embraced his wife and son again, he shoots one more arrow with his crossbow. Gessler falls into the roiling waves of the hurricane. As everyone cheers Tell, Arnold rushes in to announce that Altorf has been liberated. The storm abates and acclamations of victory and freedom soar heavenward.
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