Bel Canto at Caramoor, Review: Guillaume Tell by Gioachino Rossini

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Wilhelm Tell

Wilhelm Tell

William Tell by Gioachino Rossini
Bel Canto at Caramoor

Saturday, July 9 at 7:30pm ~ Venetian Theater
Friday, July 15 at 7:30pm (repeat performance) ~ Venetian Theater

Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Will Crutchfield, conductor


William Tell – Daniel Mobbs, bass-baritone
Matilde – Julianna Di Giacomo, soprano
Arnold – Michael Spyres, tenor
Jemmy – Talise Trevigne, soprano
Hedwige – Vanessa Cariddi, mezzo-soprano
Walter – Nicolas Masters, bass
Rodolphe – Rolando Sanz, tenor
Fisherman – Brian Downen, tenor
Melchthal – Jeffrey Beruan, bass
Gesler – Scott Bearden, baritone
Leuthold – Michael Nyby, baritone

In Steffani’s Niobe, premiered in 1688 in the Munich Residenz, a confluence of Italian and French traditions in a Bavarian court, BEMF gave us an opportunity to see an opera which is not quite like any other. It combines so many different genres and situations, that it is comprehensible only when one witnesses the spectacle as it unfolds on stage. Another rarity, although a much more famous one, Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, is also unique in its own way, and certainly a stranger to modern opera-goers. Rossini’s grandest work disappeared from the repertoire of both the Paris Opera and the Met in the early 1930s, and even before then, it was heavily cut—most likely as alien to Rossini’s intentions as the version of Il Barbiere di Siviglia that was current before the early 1970s. Even the famous overture doesn’t appear as often on symphonic programs, although it did show up at Tanglewood last weekend…on an Italian opera pot pourri, where, as a “French” overture, it was the odd man out. It is truly astonishing, when one reads Philip Gossett’s program notes for Caramoor, to learn the time and effort Rossini put into learning about French operatic conventions and the traditions of the Paris Opera in order to produce a work that was as genuinely French as possible, without abandoning his personal style—which involved retaining some Italian conventions—a far more profound effort than Wagner’s in Tannhaüser or Verdi’s in Don Carlo. Rossini, by then in his late thirties, remade his compositional technique in a foreign mode and from that created a unique hybrid of great genius. Guillaume Tell was to be Rossini’s first French opera, but in fact it was his last operatic work altogether, for a complex variety of reasons. He never gave himself a chance to develop further his own peculiar mixture of beautiful vocal writing, vigorous, even daring harmonies, folk-tunes, ballets, spectacle, conflict, and the celebration of national autonomy and freedom.

In this splendid “semi-staged” performance, even the spectacle throve, because Rossini had written so much color and atmosphere into his score, and conductor Will Crutchfield responded so sensitively to it. The gothic arches of Caramoor’s Venetian Theater, I find, are immensely conducive to imagining things, so I found images of Lake Lucerne and the Alps hovering before me, and if these bore an uncanny resemblance to Turner and Ruskin, I don’t think it at all inappropriate for Rossini’s tone-painting. His vision of Switzerland was much akin to theirs. Experiencing the spectacle this way was entirely satisfactory, and far preferable to what a Richard Wilson or an Achim Freyer might have perpetrated. Other limitations at Caramoor were the lack of a corps de ballet for Rossini’s extensive dances and time…the budget could not cover the necessary $100,000 in overtime fees to perform the opera complete. Something between 60 and 90 minutes were excised, following Rossini’s own cuts in rehearsal and following the performance. (Of course cuts are regrettable…and couldn’t help reflecting that if the long applause after every number were scotched, there would probably have been time to include two or three more.) Without dancers, Crutchfield retained only the essence of the Pas di six in the first act—which of course makes admirable sense. He also included some music cut by Rossini himself, most strikingly the trio of female voices (Matilde, Hedwige, and Jemmy) and the Prayer just before the scene in which Guillaume shoots the apple from Jemmy’s head. This is strange and wonderful music few have heard, and one example of of the several numbers which delay the action onstage, giving Guillaume Tell, as Rossini wrote it, a monumental breadth of pace. Rossini cut mercilessly, and after the premiere, he was asked to cut further. He even made a three act version with a different finale. The problem is that almost all of the music he cut was of such superlative quality. We were able to hear some of this music as part of the pre-performance program, including an aria Jemmy was intended to address to Gesler, upbraiding him for putting his father into such an inhuman position. I found it so beautiful, and the way in which Rossini structured and developed the aria so compelling, that I thought it a terrible pity that it wasn’t included as well. Together with the trio and Prayer that would have thrown that scene entirely out of proportion, of course, and it could stand only in a truly complete performance. Crutchfield’s decisions in making cuts were founded on one important ironclad principle: he never cut repeated sections from arias. These are essential not only for proportion and balance, but because Rossini varies them in the repeats, creating variations of melody and harmony, as well as changes in the psychic state of the character. (He did cut recitatives rather drastically, however.) This makes each aria rather long, an essential feature of Rossinian opera, since he wants us to stay in these moments at length and to follow their development.

What Crutchfield created was a tight, fast-moving work, which at four and a half hours, seemed short. Overall, and especially in Acts II, III, and IV, one could sense an underlying Verdian urgency and pulse. Mr. Crutchfield actually made this comparison during his introductory dialogue with Philip Gossett, who interjected that it did indeed have this pulse, as Crutchfield edited the score. Crutchfield parried that it was there in any case. I can imagine that he would know how to bring out that dramatic pulse even with pauses and divertissements, as he in fact implied. His enthusiasm for Wagner suggests how he understands this in Guillaume Tell. This is a forward-looking interpretation of Guillaume Tell. The work influenced many others, above all Verdi and Wagner, and it was a powerful new direction for the composer. It is right to view it in terms of its future, just as it is revealing to interpret Rossini’s opera seria in the context of a long history. Apart from its many musical excellences this performance would be important to preserve, if only for the shape Will Crutchfield has given it. (There was an elaborate microphone setup in place. Well, what about it?) I am convinced that he has only condensed and heightened what Rossini wrote into the opera. His version is intended above all to honor Rossini’s intentions and the score he wrote, not only with authenticity but with the utmost dramatic effectiveness in the time available for the performance. The BEMF production of Niobe may, partly from BEMF’s mission and partly from the necessity inherent in reviving a long-unperformed work in an “ancient” style, have leant towards the historical, but it was also meant to entertain and appeal to a modern audience, and in that it had something important in common with Crutchfield’s Tell, modern instruments and all, but based on an equally serious study of Rossini’s score and the culture in which it was created.

Still, when I noticed a most promising announcement of a “Caramoor Opera Fund in Honor of Will Crutchfield,” a new annual operating fund designed to give the Bel Canto at Caramoor opera program a base of sustained funding that will the long range planning so necessary for successful opera performances,” I couldn’t help thinking that if we were all very, very generous, that $100,000 needed for overtime might actually be within reach, and we could enjoy a complete Guillaume Tell at Caramoor someday.*

There can be no doubt that Guillaume Tell is a masterpiece. It is a mystery how, even with its difficulty and length, it fell out of the repertory. As Rossini’s personal solution to the foreign language of French opera, it is also highly original, and modern in many ways, with its use not only of Swiss folk tunes, but of folk instruments—cow horns, shepherd’s pipes, etc.—imitated by the instruments of the orchestra in an imagined outdoor setting. The cow horns at the beginning emerged most effectively from the sides of the tent, literally in the open air, creating an extraordinary acoustical effect. The imagined sound of these instruments, as well as the chorus, in the gathering of the Cantons at the end of Act II, resounding over the valleys and Lake Lucerne is a tour de force of atmospheric scene painting. Without that we may not have had Siegfried’s Rhine Journey or Hagen’s Calling of the Gibichungs. Just before this in Act II there is the extraordinary scene when Tell and Walter test Arnold, to find out his motivations and to retore his allegiance to his own people. Tell holds an ace, of course, in his knowledge of the murder of Arnold’s father. This is a fascinating scene of probing and manipulation, worthy of the best in Verdi, and Crutchfield and his cast brought it off with a consummate sense of pacing and dramatic meaning.

In the ‘semi-staged” production, there were no sets and no costumes, but the singers made entrances and exits, formed significant groups on the stage, and acted with a thorough grasp of their characters and their situations. The opera was cast with an ear for Bel Canto vocal production and style. Daniel Mobbs, as Tell, sang with a handsome timbre, which balanced the dark lower register and the highlights of his voice, and a fine attention to the shape of his melodic lines. He did not attempt a grand multifaceted portrayal of the part, which in fact didn’t leave much room for it, since Tell is a simple figure: determined, brave, profoundly imbued with the identity of husband, father, and Swiss nationality. His spirit is tempered by caution and self-control. The devotion of the people to Tell was fully understandable, but he was rather imposing as well. One would not want to incur his wrath, as Arnold came to understand.

Michael Spyres sang Arnold in a pure, Italianate Bel Canto manner, with a burnished head tone throughout, as Rossini preferred. In his potentially traitorous passion for the Austrian Princess Mathilde, he maintained his poise and dignity, as much through his concentration on a beautifully executed vocal line, as for his characaterization of the part. I was occasionally hoping he might let go and introduce a bit more emotional color into his singing in the more intense moments, but it never came. Still a highly creditable performance. Scott Bearden was an imposing Gesler, with a hugely resonant bass, considerably more powerful than any of the other males, making for an almost superhuman villain of vicious cruelty. A group of superb young singers from the Caramoor Bel Canto Young Singers Program made up the other roles. Jeffrey Beruan sang resonantly and most movingly as Melchtal, Arnold’s father, killed by the Austrians. Nicholas Masters applied his magnificent, dark bass most vividly to Walter Furst. Brain Downen has his raw moments at the very opening of the opera as Ruodi, the Fisherman, but his brilliant light tenor settled in quite nicely later on, in his character’s craven refusal to row Leuthold, the shepherd,  to safety from the Austrians across Lake Lucerne, pleading its treacherous weather. Michael Nyby (Leuthold) and Joseph Eletto (a hunter) were also exceptional, and Rolando Sanz, sang an appropriately elegant villain in Rodolphe, captain of Gesler’s guard. These young male singers joined the equally impressive female Young Singers interchangeably to form a polished chorus of soloists, a crucial element in any French opera, under the sure direction of Chorus Master Rachelle Jonck.

The three women took on the female leads, Vanessa Cariddi, as Tell’s wife Hedwige, Talise Trevigne as Tell’s son Jemmy, and Juliana di Giacomo as  Mathilde were best of all, bringing particularly strong characterizations, expressive delivery, and feeling to their roles. All, especially di Giacomo, had a strong stage presence, and she and Cariddi, as well as all three of them together, created some potent chemistry in their ensembles.

The Orchestra of St .Luke’s outdid themselves with clean, solid ensemble throughout, and handsome playing of Rossini’s many wind solos and ensembles.

As simple as the story of William Tell is, the dramatic situations were poignant and compelling, revealing various sides of the solid, honest Swiss as they work their way towards freedom. All of the music we heard on stage was splendid, and so were the excised passages performed during the afternoon, as I have said: Jemmy’s aria mentioned above, a choeur dansé from Act III, a version of Mathilde’s “Pour notre amour plus, d’espérance” with Arnold, and the Alternate Finale, which Rossini composed for the 1831 three-act version. However, nothing could come close to the almost mystical hymn to freedom, which forms to actual Finale. Broad and colored by harmonies and orchestral colors which are equally atmospheric and transcendent, it brings this magnificent opera to a close worthy of its quality, sincerity, and monumental scale.

During the afternoon, there was an added treat in an hour-long recital of settings of Schiller’s poetry by Liszt, Schumann, Schubert, and Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg…for good measure. The quality of the young voices, some of whom were mentioned above, was astonishing. To these I’d like to add the name of Charlotte Dobbs, who sang exquisitely, both in Jemmy’s aria and in Liszt’s setting of Schiller’s “Der Fischerknabe.” Among the many other superb performances I’d like to mention Nicholas Master’s imposing performance of “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus,” in which his voice, which could well produce a superb Wotan some day, brought Wagner’s study of Schubert to life, making palpable how Wagner progressed from Die Feen to the Dutchman to Siegfried through Schubert. It was a joy to hear almost all of these magnificent young singers.

*Crutchfield gives in his introductory notes a succinct account of the different possible versions one might perform of Guillaume Tell: “Guillaume Tell soon returned to the Parisian stage and thrived there for many decades – but never “the whole of it.” The opera is legendarily long and difficult; Rossini never heard an uncut performance of it, and attempts to play the score complete are to this day so rare as to seem almost “legendary” themselves.

In any case, “complete” is an ambiguous term in relation to Guillaume Tell. There are several possible points of reference:

1) The score that was put into rehearsal at the Opéra in 1829

2) The score actually performed on opening night – which had some additions, some outright substitutions, and some significant cuts

3) The score issued by Rossini’s publisher, reflecting many of the changes made in rehearsal, but retaining some important music that had never actually been performed

4) The score as further shortened after opening night

5) The score as modified by Rossini in later seasons

A “complete” Guillaume Tell containing all of the music Rossini ever intended to be performed in the opera has, as far as I know, never been attempted anywhere. On a few rare occasions, either the second or the third score mentioned above has been performed uncut: the opening-night version has been done at Santa Cecilia recently under Antonio Pappano, and the published version was done by Riccardo Muti at La Scala in the 1980s (in Italian translation) and at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro (in French) in the 1990s. Much more often, the performing text is a reduction of the opening-night score from which many musical repeats, some whole choral numbers, and most or all of the ballet music have been omitted.” The La Scala performance is available on a Philips set (). Purportedly the most complete version in French is Gardelli’s excellent set with Bacquier, Gedda, and Caballé. Chailly’s performance of the Italian version current in the 19th century on Decca is also very desirable.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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