Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > William Tell (Rossini) - Synopsis
William Tell - Synopsis
(French title: Guillaume Tell)
An Opera by Gioacchino Antonio Rossini
Opera by Rossini, originally in five acts, cut down to three by omitting the third act and condensing the fourth and fifth into one, then rearranged in four; words by "Jouy" (V. J. Etienne), rearranged by Hippolyte and Armand Marast. Produced, Grand Opéra, Paris, August 3, 1829, Nourrit being the original Arnold; revived with Duprez, 1837. Italy, "Guglielmo Tell," at Lucca, September 17, 1831. London, Drury Lane, 1830, in English; Her Majestys Theatre, 1839, in Italian. In New York the title rôle has been sung by Karl Formes, who made his first American tour in 1857. The interpreters of Arnold have included the Polish tenor Mierzwinski at the Academy of Music, and Tamagno.
HEDWIGA, Tells wife
JEMMY, Tells son
ARNOLD, suitor of Matilda
MELCTHAL, Arnolds father
GESSLER, governor of Schwitz and Uri
MATILDA, Gesslers daughter
RUDOLPH, captain in Gesslers guard
LEUTHOLD, a shepherd
RUEDI, a fisherman
Peasants, Knights, Pages, Ladies, Hunters, Soldiers, Guards, and three Bridal Couples.
Time: Thirteenth Century.
Arnold, a Swiss patriot and son of the venerable Swiss leader, Melcthal, has saved from drowning Matilda, daughter of the Austrian tyrant Gessler, whom the Swiss abhor. Arnold and Matilda have fallen in love with each other.
Act 1. A beautiful May morning has dawned over the Lake of Lucerne, on which Tells house is situated. It is the day of the Shepherd Festival. According to ancient custom the grey-haired Melcthal blesses the loving couples among them. But his own son, Arnold, does not ask a blessing of the old man. Yet, although he loves Matilda, his heart also belongs to his native land. The festival is interrupted by the sound of horns. It is the train of Gesler, the hated tyrant. Leuthold rushes in, breathless. In order to protect his daughter from dishonour, he has been obliged to kill one of Gesslers soldiers. He is pursued. To cross the lake is his only means of escape. But who will take him in the face of the storm that is coming up? Tell wastes no time in thinking. He acts. It is the last possible moment. Gesslers guards already are seen, Rudolph at their head. With Tells aid the fugitive escapes them, but they turn to the country folk, and seize and carry off old Melcthal.
Act II. In a valley by a lake Arnold and Matilda meet and again pledge their love. Arnold learns from Tell and Walter that his father has been slain by Gesslers order. His thoughts turn to vengeance. The three men bind themselves by oath to free Switzerland. The cantons gather and swear to throw off the Austrian yoke.
Act III. The market-place in Altdorf. It is the hundredth anniversary of Austrian rule in Switzerland. Fittingly to celebrate the day Gessler has ordered his hat to be placed on top of a pole. The Swiss are commanded to make obeisance to the hat. Tell comes along holding his son Jemmy by the hand. He refuses to pay homage to the hat. As in him is also recognized the man who saved Leuthold, he must be punished. Gessler cynically orders him to shoot an apple from Jemmys head. The shot succeeds. Fearless, as before, Tell informs Gessler that the second arrow was intended for him, had the first missed its mark. Tells arrest is ordered, but the armed Swiss, who have risen against Austria, approach. Gessler falls by Tells shot; the fight ends with the complete victory for the Swiss. Matilda who still loves Arnold finds refuge in his arms.
"Guillaume Tell" is the only opera by an Italian of which it can be said that the overture has gained world-wide fame, and justly so, white the opera itself is so rarely heard that it may almost be said to have passed out of the repertoire. Occasionally it is revived for the benefit of a high tenor like Tamagno. In point of fact, however, it is too good a work to be made the vehicle of a single operatic star. It is a question if, with a fine ensemble, "Guillaume Tell" could not be restored to the list of operas regularly given. Or, is it one of those works more famous than effective; and is that why, at this point I am reminded of a passage in Whistlers "Ten Oclock"? The painter is writing of art and of how little its spirit is affected by the personality of the artist, or even by the character of a whole people.
A whimsical goddess," he writes, "and a capricious, her strong sense of joy tolerates no dullness, and live we never so spotlessly, still may she turn her back upon us.
As, from time immemorial, as she done upon the Swiss in their mountains.
What more worthy people! Whose every Alpine gap yawns with tradition, and is stocked with noble story; yet, the perverse and scornful one will none of it, and the sons of patriots are left with the clock that turns the mill, and the sudden cuckoo, with difficulty restrained in its box!
Because we associate Switzerland with tourists, personally conducted and otherwise, with hotels, guides, and a personnel trained to welcome, entertain, and speed the departing guest, is it difficult for us to grasp the heroic strain in "Guillaume Tell"? Surely it is a picturesque opera; and Switzerland has a heroic past. Probably the real reasons for the lack of public interest in the opera are the clumsy libretto and the fact that Rossini, an Italian, was not wholly in his element in composing a grand opera in the French style, which "Guillaume Tell" is. It would be difficult to point out just how and where the style hampered the composer, but there constantly is an undefined feeling that it did -- that the score is not as spontaneous as, for example, "The Barber of Seville"; and that, although "Guillaume Tell" is heroic, the "sudden cuckoo, with difficulty restrained in its box," may at any time pop out and join in the proceedings.
The care which Rossini bestowed on this work is seen in the layout and composition of the overture, which as an instrumental number is as fine a tour de force as his "Una voce poco fa," "Bel raggio," or "Giorno dorrore" are for voice. The slow introduction denotes Alpine calm. There is a beautiful passage for violoncellos, which has been quoted in books on instrumentation. In it Rossini may well have harked back to his student years, when he was a pupil in violoncello playing at the conservatory in Bologna. The calm is followed by a storm and this, in turn, by a "Ranz des Vaches." The final section consists of a trumpet call, followed by a fast movement, which can be played so as to leave the hearer quite breathless. It is supposed to represent the call to arms and the uprising of the Swiss against their Austrian oppressors, whose yoke they threw off.
The most striking musical number in the first act of the opera, is Arnolds "O, Matilda."
A tenor with powerful high tones in his voice always can render this with great effect. In fact it is so effective that its coming so early in the work is a fault of construction which in my opinion has been a factor in the non-success of the opera as a whole. Even a tenor like Mierzwinski, "a natural singer of short-lived celebrity," with remarkable high notes, in this number could rouse to a high pitch of enthusiasm an audience that remained comparatively calm the rest of the evening.
The climax of the second act is the trio between Arnold, Tell, and Walter, followed by the assembly of the cantons and the taking of the oath to conquer or die ("La Gloria infiammi -- I nostri petti" -- May glory our hearts with courage exalt).
Its most effective passage begins as follows:
Another striking musical number is Arnolds solo in the last act, at sight of his ruined home. "O muto asil" (O, silent abode).
The opera ends with a hymn to liberty, "I boschi, i monti" (Through forests will, oer mountain peaks).
At the initial performance of "Guillaume Tell" in Paris, there was no indication that the opera was not destined to remain for many years in the repertoire. It was given fifty-six times. Then, because of the great length of the opera, only the second act was performed in connection with some other work, until the sensational success of Duprez, in 1837, led to a revival.
"Guillaume Tell," given in full, would last nearly five hours. The poor quality of the original libretto by "Jouy" led to the revision by Bis, but even after that there had to be cuts.
"Ah, maestro," exclaimed an enthusiastic admirer of Rossini to that master, "I heard your William Tell at the Opera last night!"
"What?" asked Rossini. "The whole of it?"
Clever; but by his question Rossini unconsciously put his finger on the weak spot of the opera he intended to be his masterpiece. Be it never so well given, it is long-winded.