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Antonio Pappano conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia [Photo by Chris Christodoulou.courtesy of the BBC]
18 Jul 2011

Guillaume Tell, BBC Proms

Operatic fashions are fickle and, more to the point, often plain wrong. We all have our grievance lists of works that are ‘scandalously neglected’.

Gioacchino Rossini, Guillaume Tell

William Tell: Michele Pertusi; Arnold Melchthal: John Osborn; Walter Furst: Matthew Rose; Melchthal: Frédéric Caton; Jemmy: Elena Xanthoudakis; Gessler: Nicolas Courjal; Rodolphe: Carlo Bosi; Ruodi: Celso Albelo; Leuthold: Mark Stone; Mathilde: Malin Byström; Hedwige: Patricia Bardon; Huntsman: Davide Malvestio, Chorus and Academy of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome (chorus master: Ciro Visco), Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Prom 2, Saturday 16 July 2011.

Above: Antonio Pappano conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia

Photos by Chris Christodoulou.courtesy of the BBC

 

No one would claim that, Riccardo Muti notwithstanding, ‘serious’ Rossini was in fashion. On the basis of this Proms concert performance of Guillaume Tell, I cannot say that I feel deprived. Indeed I should express unalloyed relief, were it not for the fact that its place tends to be assumed by less rather than more interesting works. Schiller’s wonderful play, Wilhelm Tell, becomes something tedious and uninvolving – and, moreover, tedious and uninvolving at very great length. One gains no real sense of the characters as characters, of why one should or even might care about them. Now it might well be that individual psychology is not the point; it certainly is not in, say, Fidelio. Yet there one has a noble, overwhelming instantiation of the bourgeois idea of freedom at its greatest. Here one has interminable exchanges between men from different Swiss cantons ramble on uninspiringly about a Swiss fatherland, but never with fervour, lest Rossini’s monarchist protectors become alarmed. The nationalism – or, perhaps better, caricatured anti-German sentiment – is so preposterous that one can only hope nobody took it seriously even at the time. Certainly if this were a German work and the boot were on the other foot, we should expect howls of protest. The romantic element, between the Habsburg princess Mathilde, who rejects the wicked governor Gessler, and Arnold Meuchtal, a Swiss conspirator, is implausible – and implausible at great length. And how much lolling about in the sun by peasants can anyone reasonably be expected to take? Music can express languor very well; think of Debussy. Here, however, it less expresses boredom than becomes lamentably nondescript – at, you guessed it, inordinate length. Indeed, the entire first act could be cut without the slightest harm to the plot; on this occasion, it was the fourth that suffered, being cut down to twenty minutes, creating the rather odd impression of a rush to the finishing line far too late. I have never attended an operatic performance at which so many in the audience were constantly checking their watches, nor, indeed, in which so many leaped to their feet and departed, as soon as the performance was over, not even waiting to engage in the most desultory applause.

So much for the work: I was genuinely interested to have the rare opportunity to hear it, but now do not feel the need to do so again. What of the performances? Antonio Pappano had his moments, perhaps more so in the crowd control of the choral exchanges, or some of the recitative passages. Yet I could not help but wonder what a conductor such as Muti would have brought to the work; perhaps his iron grip might have had one believe in something as implausible as this. Even the overture failed to impress. It is sectional, of course, but surely a conductor ought to try to mask that just a little; there was no discernible attempt at transition whatsoever. The storm section was absurdly hard-driven, and the whole quite lacked charm, despite some fine woodwind playing from the Santa Cecilia orchestra. Though the strings on occasion sounded a little feeble here, they were on good form for most of what was to come. To have members of the orchestra take solo bows following the overture was straightforwardly bizarre.

Michele-Pertusi--and-John-O.gifMichele Pertusi (William Tell) and John Osborn (Arnold Melchthal)

Vocal performance remained. The choral singing was generally very good indeed, and improved as the night went on: Ciro Visco is clearly an excellent choral trainer. Michele Pertusi, sad to say, made a dull Tell. Someone charismatic in this role might have pulled off a miracle, but that was not to be. Most of the rest of the cast outshone him, not least John Osborn’s outstanding Arnold, his fourth-cast aria, ‘Asile héréditaire’, proving the evening’s high-point: sweetly and elegantly sung. (Pappano should not, however, have allowed the prolonged intrusion of applause thereafter.) Elena Zanthoudakis sang well as Jemmy, Tell’s son, though her French vowels often left a good deal to be desired. The wideness of Patricia Bardon’s vibrato as Hedwige, Tell’s wife, would not have been to all tastes, and was certainly not to mine. Bar the odd unfortunate moment, such as a culiminating shriek in her Act II Scene 3 exchange with Arnold, Malin Byström proved impressive as Mathilde, her coloratura almost always precise and tasteful, though the end of the third act brought some notably flat singing. Nicolas Courjal’s Gessler in many ways came the closest to a convincing portrayal of character, certainly as close as one could imagine, suavity of line and demeanour suggesting a more sophisticated malevolence than one might have expected.

The singing, then, or rather some of the singing, was the only real point of interest. I can imagine that a staged performance with an outstanding conductor – a Muti or an Abbado – and an interesting, properly deconstructive production – from, say, a Stefan Herheim or a Peter Konwitschny – might work wonders, though I suspect one would tend to think that such talents would be better employed elsewhere. At least the celebrated scene with the apple, for which everyone not unreasonably appeared to be waiting, might elicit some sort of impact, whereas in concert, one merely notes the lack thereof. I am far from a Rossini devotee, but give me the sparkle of Il barbiere di Siviglia any day over this, and if it must be grand opéra, then Rienzi, which boasts some truly extraordinary music, let alone the masterpieces of Berlioz. Even Meyerbeer if necessary… I could not help but think of Wagner’s Opera and Drama, in which he portrays nineteenth-century opera as having degenerated into a chaotic farrago of different elements, randomly mixed and presented, permitting each spectator choosing whatever took his fancy: ‘Here the dainty leap of a ballerina, there the singer’s daring passage-work, here the set-painter’s brilliant effect, there the amazing eruption of an orchestral volcano.’ In this way, Wagner, claimed, composers such as Rossini had become the toast of the ‘entire civilised world’, and acquired the protection of Prince Metternich (the Austrian Prince Metternich, be it noted) and his European System, reinforcing rather than questioning the social order. Such a work, then, is undoubtedly of historical importance; its modern-day interest, however, largely escaped me.

Mark Berry

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