Online opera guide and synopsis to Rossini’s GUILLAUME TELL
Rossini’s Tell is a great work, yet it is not often performed, the scenic effort and casting difficulties are too great. Nevertheless, it is one of the most influential operas that has co-founded the modern tenor and the Grand Opéra.
Overview and quick access
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
♪ Act III
♪ Act IV
♪ Domo, o ciel, da un stranier Arrival of the soldiers of the three cantons
♪ Tutto cangia, il ciel s’abbella Finale
Hippolyte Bis, based on a novella by Etienne de Juoy (whose basis is Schiller's William Tell).
The main roles
Guillaume Tell, Swiss freedom fighter (baritone) - Hedwige, his wife (mezzo-soprano) - Jemmy, his son (mezzo-soprano) - Gessler, Habsburg bailiff (bass) - Rodolphe, a captain of Gessler (tenor) - Mathilde, Habsburg princess (soprano) - Arnold, Swiss and Mathilde's lover (tenor) - Walther, Swiss, leader of the Uri people (bass)
DECCA, with Sherill Milnes, Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Della Jones, conducted by Riccardo Chailly and the National Philharmonic Orchestra and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus.
The famous “do in petto” – the birth of the heroic tenor
The role of Arnoldo is undoubtedly one of the most difficult tenor roles in the opera repertoire. The opera-mad writer James Joyce once remarked: “I have been studying the score of Guillaume Tell and I discover that (the tenor) Sullivan sings 456 Gs, 93 A flats, 92 As, 54 Bs, 15 Bflats, 19 Cs and two C sharps. No one else can do it.”
The tenor of the first performance was Adolphe Nourrit. He was the leading tenor of his time and indisputably a great singer. He had problems with this role and from the third performance onwards he is said to have omitted the aria “Asile héréditaire” (“O muto asil”) and the following Caballetta.Eight years later his rival Gilbert Duprez sang in this opera the first documented high C from the full breast voice (“do in petto”) instead of the falsetto voice. Rossini was shocked and repulsed. He compared the tone “to the screeching of a capon whose throat is cut”.
After this event nothing was the same as before, the audience was enthusiastic and the following generation of composers turned the prevailing singing style upside down, the heroic tenor with the blaring voice was born. Even Nourrit went to Italy to learn the new style. When his wife visited him in Italy, she found that he had ruined his voice.
Rossini in Paris
In 1824 Rossini, already a famous and respected composer (notabene, Rossini was only 32 years old!), came to Paris to take over the direction of the “Théâtre-Italien”. After various successful new and revised opera projects, King Charles X offered him a lifetime pension for a new work for the Grand Opéra.
Rossini chose the theme of the Swiss liberation hero “William Tell”, which with its theme took up the zeitgeist of the suppressed revolutions such as the Italian Risorgimento. He used as a basis the novella written by Etienne de Juoy, the writer who had already written the libretto for his “Moïse et Pharaon”. Juoy, of course, knew the Schiller version, but deviated from the original, so that the Rossian version of Tell does not entirely coincide with Schiller’s famous original. The writer’s poor state of health did not allow to create an operatic libretto, and he commissioned his collaborator Hippolyte Bis to do this work.
Rossini originally planned the opera for 1828, but it took until August 1829 for the first performance. Never before had Rossini taken so much time to create an opera, which he sometimes had written within a month.
The main reason was the extremely complex production system at the Grand Opéra. The Grand Opéra was based on the traditions of Gluck’s Reform Opera and the Opéra Comique. Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell” (1829), together with Auber’s “Muette de Portici” (1828) and Meyerbeer’s “Robert le diable” (1831), formed the prototype of this new type of magnificent opera based on historicising themes, which combined the artistic genres of music, literature, dance, decoration and painting . Specialised Committees for each artistic genre took care of the elaboration of the details and endless rehearsals revealed weak points, which again led to changes in the composition. The productions of the Grand Opéra required the artists to create historical fabrics with authentic colouring. So the stage designer Cicéri was sent to Central Switzerland, where he made sketches for the stage sets.
Rossini’s last opera
“Guillaume Tell” was Rossini’s last opera at the age of 37. Why, remains a mystery to this day. Was it his fragile health that made him suffer from depression, was it creative exhaustion after years of excessive productivity, or did he think his music no longer fitted the times? Although Rossini was in negotiation with the Grand Opéra (there was a 10-year contract in which Rossini was to deliver 4 works and receive a substantial lifelong pension in return), a financial crisis in the state budget, triggered by the July Revolution, caused these plans to be thwarted after a lengthy legal battle.
With William Tell, Rossini reinvented himself. The coloratura, let alone the coloratura aria, was practically eradicated from the score. Only during the performance of the imperial Mathilde does the listener still hear coloratura in the aria “Sombre forêt” (“Selva opaca”). This is surprising, since his coloratura opera “Semiramide” was composed only six years ago. Thus William Tell appears to us (and to the listeners of the time) as his most modern opera. To achieve this, Rossini had to adapt his style and forms to the Grand Opéra, which demanded more of a “lyrical tableau” and static mass scenes than a “dramatic plot” and gave the ballet a prominent position. Thus genre pictures such as shepherd’s life were given more importance than dramatic scenes such as the apple shot. Rossini himself had never seen Central Switzerland, but he knew Geneva and part of the Alps of Western Switzerland. Rossini used various alpine shepherdmen’s songs (French: “ranz des vaches”) in the opera, which he took from a songbook of Western Switzerland.
Already for the premiere Rossini had to make cuts due to the huge dimensions. With all entr’actes, breaks and ballets the performance lasts a full six hours. . Shortly afterwards, cuts became the rule in all productions, which were handled by the performers on their own authority. In 1831 Rossini hurriedly wrote an official shortened version, but it was already too late, and versions were already available in French and foreign language texts.
Premiere and review
The public and the press reacted friendly but not euphoric to the new work. The popularity of the work increased with the further performances, as the understanding for the “new music” grew. In Italy, the work had a difficult time in the 19th century, as it always had to struggle with censorship because of the revolutionary material. With the decline of the Grand Opéra towards the end of the 19th century, the work fell out of the repertoire and nowadays the work is rarely performed, as the enormous effort and casting difficulties have a deterrent effect.
Today the opera is performed in French and Italian, so that we hear in this opera portrait versions of both languages.
GUILLAUME TELL ACT I
The famous overture
Synopsis: The inhabitants of original Switzerland live under the bondage of the Habsburg reeves.
The overture is one of the most famous and most performed pieces of all classical music. Rossini broke new ground with the form of the overture. The four-part prelude presents four tableaux:
The first part represents the beginning of the day. A solo cello opens with the theme and enters into dialogue with the other cellos. Little by little the orchestra begins and drums announce the approaching thunderstorm. The swelling strings and the interjections of the wind instruments imitate the thunderstorm, which gains in intensity, culminating in the end with joyful flute singing and giving way to the sun.
The pastoral third scene is inspired by Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, which Rossini held in great esteem. He used a melody from the “Ranz des vaches” for the duet of flute and cor anglais, one of the most famous wind solos in literature.
The overture ends with the famous gallop, the march of the soldiers.
Ouvertüre – Chailly
Synopsis: In an alpine village the inhabitants prepare a festivity.
A constitutive feature of the Grand Opéra were the tableaux with a lot of local colour, like here the choir of the country people.
È il ciel sereno / Quel jour serein le ciel présage
The virtuoso song of the fisherman
Synopsis: A fisherman is mending the net and Tell is standing thoughtfully on the shore, beside him is his wife Hedwige and his son Jemmy. Tell laments the fate of the Swiss.
It is a fisherman’s song in the old style, with high difficult passages that lead the voice once to the C and once to the H.
Alfredo Kraus was the best “Tenore di grazia” of the post-war period alongside Nicolai Gedda. Rossini wrote the role of Arnoldo which is written in high tessitura for this type of voice of the “lyrical heroic tenor”. Kesting (“the great singers”) speaks with the highest praise of Kraus “il piccol legno ascendi”: “His voice magically transforms into a silver trumpet that produces top notes for which any other tenor of his sacred candles would light”.
Il piccol legno ascendi – Kraus
Synopsis: From the distance the bells of the herds are heard. The old Melchthal appears in the company of his son, the peasants greet the respected man and father figure of the people.
We hear a beautiful choral piece with soloists and magnificent wind parts.
Al fremer del torrente (Accours dans ma nacelle)
Tell tries to win Arnoldo for the Swiss cause
Synopsis: Arnoldo is left behind alone. He is unhappily in love with the Habsburg princess Mathilde. He is desperate because his compatriots despise him for it and he does not dare to propose for her. He notices in the distance the hunting party of the tyrant Gessler, with Mathilde at his side. Then Tell steps to his side, sensing the depressed mood of Melchthal. He tries to win him over to the Swiss cause and receives from him sincere enthusiasm, but Arnoldo is torn apart by his love for Matilde and the fatherland.
The dialogue develops into a beautiful and varied duet. In the second part Arnoldo repeatedly sings the beautiful cantilena “O ciel, tu sai se Matilde m’è cara”, which expresses his love for the princess and contrasts with Tell’s patriotic enthusiasm.
Arresta quali sguardi ! Où vas-tu? quel transport t’agite? – Pavarotti/Milnes
Choir and ballet of the flower girls
Synopsis: A wedding procession appears and the old Melchthal blesses the bride and groom according to an old custom. Gessler’s hunting horns can be heard from afar. Tell addresses patriotic words to the people to rise up against the Habsburg rule. When he notices that Arnoldo has stolen away, he goes in search of the young man. Meanwhile the wedding celebration continues.
Cinto il crine di bei fiori … passo a sei (Hyménée, ta journée fortunée luit pour nous) – Gardelli
Synopsis: In the following crossbow competition Gemmy wins the first prize. The festivities are abruptly interrupted by the arrival of Leutoldo. He reports that he is being hunted by Gessler’s henchmen. He has killed a Habsburg lansquenet who wanted to abuse his daughter. Now he wants to escape across the lake. But none of the fishermen is willing to help him, as a storm has brewed up over the lake. In the meantime Tell has come back. When he hears Leutoldos story and the pursuers approach, Tell decides to help him and together they board a barge. The Swiss watch spellbound as the boat reaches the rescued shore. When the Habsburgs appear, their leader Rodolfo wants to know the name of the traitor who helped Leutoldo to escape. When the Swiss refuse, Rodolfo orders the destruction of the village and has the old Melchthal arrested.
At this point we hear a concertato for solo voices and choir with a great stretta.
Finale Act I – Chailly
GUILLAUME TELL ACT II
Synopsis: At night, the Habsburg hunters celebrate the day’s successful hunt near the Rütli.
In this picture Rossini contrasts two choir groups, first the impetuous singing of the Austrian hunters and then the pastoral choir of the Swiss shepherds.
Qual silvestre metro interno (Quelle sauvage harmonie)
The wonderful romance “selva opaca” (“Sombre forêt”)
Synopsis: Matilde has left the hunting society in the hope of meeting Arnoldo, whom she loves.
Selva opaca is a lyrical aria, sparingly and tenderly accompanied by the orchestra. It is one of the few scenes that is written “in the old Rossini style” with coloratura and leaps in tone.
This aria, with its pressing motives and legato passages, magically seems to be written for the throat of Montserrat Caballé.
Selva opaca, deserta brughiera (Sombre forêt) – Caballé
The great duet of Arnoldo and Matilde
Synopsis: Arnoldo appears. He is desperate, because class distinction stands between the two. Matilde is able to convince him that by succeeding on the battlefield of Europe he can acquire the right to propose to her.
Rossini composed a duet with a beautifully lyrical middle section in Italian bel canto style and a rousing stretta.
Tutto apprendi, o sventurato (Oui, vous l’arrachez à mon âme) – Freni/Pavarotti
Synopsis: When they agree to meet the following day, you hear Tell and Walther approaching. Matilde quickly disappears but Tell notices the shadow of the person, which arouses his suspicion. Arnoldo confesses his love for Matilde and tells them that he will fight for the flag of Habsburg in foreign lands. The two of them announce the terrible news that his father had been slain by the oppressors. Arnoldo is destroyed and together they swear to take up the fight against the Habsburgs.
Again Arnoldo has to sing long high passages in the middle part of this trio when he learns of his father’s death. In the third part they swear to take revenge.
Allor che scorre de’ forti il sangue („Quand l’Helvétie est un champ de supplices) – Gedda / Kovacs / Bacquier
A unique choir scene
Synopsis: Now men from all three cantons are gradually arriving.
Rossini composed the arrival of each of the three cantons. Three times the fighters from the cantons appear. Three times one hears horn calls from afar and the solemn arrival of the allies. This performance by the three cantons with their divided choirs is overwhelming and lasts a full fifteen minutes. We hear the performance of men from Schwyz.
Domo, o ciel, da un stranier – Chailly
Synopsis: Together with the three men they swear to fight against the Habsburgs and appoint Tell as their leader.
The united choirs of the three cantons sing the Rütli oath together. The second act ends with “Giuriam, giuriam pei nostri danni”.
Giuriam, giuriam pei nostri danni (Jurons, jurons par nos dangers) – Chailly
GUILLAUME TELL ACT III
Synopsis: Matilde and Arnoldo meet the next morning at a remote chapel. Arnoldo tells her that his honour demands that he must fight for his country. Matilde is horrified to learn that Gessler had Arnoldo’s father killed and that her dream of marrying Arnoldo is not coming true.
Pour notre amour (ah se privo die speme è l’amore) – Caballé
Synopsis: On a market square in Altdorf in front of Gessler’s castle, Gessler’s hat is planted on a high pole. Gessler proclaims that everyone who passes the market place must bow to the hat, otherwise he will face the death penalty.
A big scene on the square. First the choir of the Swiss and soldiers, then the ballet of the girls.
Gloria al poter supremo (Gloire au pouvoir suprême) – Chailly
The famous «Pas des soldats»
Ballabile die soldati (Pas de soldats) – Muti/Scala
Synopsis: When Tell walks across the square with his son, he refuses to salute the hat and Rodolfo recognises Tell as the one who helped Leutoldo escape. Gessler has Tell arrested.
A beautiful quartet of 3 male voices and soprano accompanied by the choir and orchestra.
Quel fasto m’offende (Tant d’orgueil me lasse) – Mazzoli / de Palma /Milnes / Della Jones
Tell’s moving «Sois immobile»
Synopsis: Gessler now comes up with the terrible idea that Tell should shoot the apple from his son’s head as punishment. When Tell refuses, Gessler orders his son to be killed. Then Tell throws himself at Gessler’s feet, Gessler scornfully demands the apple shot. Tell is moved and blesses his son. He is handed the crossbow and the quiver and secretly sticks a second arrow into his jacket. Once again Tell goes to his son and asks him to stand still and pray to God.
Touchingly accompanied by a solo cello, Tell sings the moving words. The baryton’s voice goes up to the F (“Gemmy! Gemmy!”) to express the pain of the father.
Resta immobile (Sois immobile) – Hampson
The apple shot
Synopsis: Tell takes aim and hits the apple. The people cheer and Gessler is shocked. The son hurries to the father. As the two embrace, the second arrow falls down. Gessler asks him what the second arrow was for. As Tell answers “for him”, Gessler has Tell put in chains and orders death in the dungeon for the two. Then Matilde appears and orders mercy for the boy in the emperor’s name. Gessler gives in. He decides that Tell should be taken by ship across the lake to the dungeon in Küssnacht, where death awaits him.
Only the drum roll can be heard as Tell takes aim. When he hits the apple the music explodes and the people cheer.
Vittoria – Muti
Synopsis: Tell curses the bloodthirsty tyrant Gessler and is brought to the ship under the eyes of the agitated people.
Anatema a Gessler – Milnes / Palma / Jones
GUILLAUME TELL ACT IV
Arnold’s Tour de Force aria “Asile héréditaire”
Synopsis: Arnoldo is in his father’s hut. He remembers him and takes leave of the place of his childhood. He hears the noise of angry Swiss people and learns about the arrest of WilliamTell. Now he knows what to do, determined to call the Swiss to arms and to free Tell by force. Tell will not die!
Arnoldo’s lyrical aria in combination with the subsequent cabaletta is one of the most difficult tenor pieces in the opera repertoire. It begins with a short horn motif that represents the memory of Arnold’s youth. Only a few bars after the tenor’s entrance, he has to sing an exposed B flat with another one two bars later. Rossini composes the pain of farewell with a repeated increase of the phrase “J’appelle en vain” and the aria ends with a high C.
It is continued with the notorious caballetta “Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance” (“Corriam! Voliam! S’affretti lo scempio”), which is peppered with 6 more high C’s, some of which have to be held over one and a half bars to express the ecstasy of Arnoldo.
We hear the aria in four versions.
Pavarotti’s interpretation is dramatically drawn. The high notes are a bit forced, Pavarotti showed a big heart for taking on this role. However, he deliberately refrained from singing the role on stage, because he knew that his voice would be damaged if he had to sing it in a few day intervals one after the other.
O muto asil del pianto (1) – Pavarotti
Alfredo Kraus, the phenomenal “Tenore di grazia” sings beautiful noble lines. We hear the Cavatina (from 1:30). As an encore he even sings an E flat at the end (4:48).
O muto asil del pianto (2) – Kraus
Bryn Hymel’s voice is not only powerful but also smooth. Impressive is the long end C of the American tenor. The aria begins from 3.10.
Asile héréditaire (3) – Hymel
Finally, we hear an ecstatic version of the American tenor Michael Spyre, whose voice sings the high C’s brilliantly, seemingly without tiring, and yet has the souplesse in the vibrato of the first lyrical part.
Asile héréditaire (4) – Spyres
The heavenly terzetto
Synopsis: At Tell’s house. Hedwige is desperate and believes husband and son are lost. Then Jemmy appears and she takes him in her arms overjoyed. He is accompanied by Matilde. Matilde solemnly announces that she wants to join the freedom fighters. Moved, Jemmy and Hedwig take her into their circle.
A heavenly trio for three female voices.
Sotratto a orribilil nembo / (Je rends à votre amour un fils digne de vous) – Muti/Ricciarelli
Synopsis: Jemmy remembers the order to call the Swiss to battle with a big fire. He fetches the crossbow from the house and sets the house on fire. Hedwig prays to God that they can still save her husband’s life.
A duet of women’s voices accompanied by a women’s choir forms a beautiful resting point.
Tu che l’appoggio del debol sei (Toi, qui du faible est l’espérance)
The great finale
Synopsis: Leutoldo appears and tells excitedly that Tell is on the ship which is in the middle of a heavy storm on its way to Küssnacht. Everyone hurries to Küssnacht. On the ship, Tell has taken the helm because he is the only one who can guide the ship in the hurricanelike storm. When he brings the ship to shore, he jumps out of the boat and pushes the ship away from the shore with his legs. His family and friends are already waiting for him there. Tell grabs his crossbow and shoots Gessler, who saved himself on a rock. From far away one can see Gessler’s castle in Altdorf going up in flames. Arnold together with the swiss appear to announce that Switzerland has been freed from the Habsburg yoke.
Tutto cangia, il ciel s’abbella – Pavarotti/Milnes/Frei/Ghiaurov
A funny Encore
The famous overture has been immortalised in countless recordings and appears in popular formats from the Flintstones to Bonanza. A special treat can be heard on YouTube with the yodelled version by Mary Schneider.
Fun Version – Mary Schneider’s yodel Ouverture
DECCA, with Sherill Milnes, Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Della Jones, under the direction of Riccardo Chailly and the National Philharmonic Orchestra and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on “GUILLAUME TELL” by Gioacchino Rossini.