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.