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 Recording of the Week  Rossini’s William Tell

The 2011 BBC Proms get under way this Friday and one of the early season highlights for me is a concert performance of Rossini’s William Tell with Antonio Pappano and his Accademia Nazionale Di Santa Cecilia, Rome. By strange coincidence (actually clever timing from EMI), a CD taken from the live performances in Rome last autumn is being released today, and with Canadian baritone Gerald Finley leading a stellar international cast it looks set to put Rossini’s grandest opera firmly back on the map.

Antonio Pappano
Antonio Pappano

The Overture is of course well known, and even prompted CBS News anchor Dan Rather to use it to identify an intellectual snob – “someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture and not think of The Lone Ranger”! But beyond the Overture, the rest of the opera is very rarely performed, and compared to other operas there are relatively few recordings in the catalogue. This new one then is particularly welcome.

Composed in 1829, William Tell is hugely important both historically and musicologically speaking as it really established the structure of grand opera, and with extravagant vocal demands and its epic scale, its influence can be clearly seen in the works of Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Meyerbeer and numerous others.

The original French libretto is derived from Schiller’s verse drama Wilhelm Tell, and depicts the eponymous 13th-century folk hero whose courage and brave deeds (the most famous of which was shooting an apple off his son’s head with a bow and arrow) influenced an uprising that brought the Swiss independence from the Hapsburg dynasty.

One of the main challenges of this opera is casting it. As Pappano notes in the booklet: “William Tell has a famously impossible tenor part”. The role of Arnold is incredibly high and there are very few singers who can even get near it. Here, American tenor John Osborne reaches the stratospheric top notes with apparent ease and his voice has a natural bloom and sweetness which suits this music very well.

The role of the heroine Mathilde is almost as taxing, with the coloratura, lyrical and dramatic demands all considerable. Swedish soprano Malin Byström sings the role beautifully with a rich and expressive tone. Meanwhile Gerald Finley brings his imperious baritone voice to the title role. As usual he sings with total commitment and along with the rest of the cast presents a compelling case for this opera.

Antonio Pappano says he agreed to conduct William Tell without really knowing it, and initially wondered what he might have had got himself into, but he has clearly been completely won over by the very high quality of this neglected opera. Dramatically it is quite slow moving, but he keeps the tension high throughout. As the Financial Times noted after the live performance: ”The orchestra is fleet and wonderfully together, with crunch, buoyancy, a keen sense of collective phrasing, and its own very distinctive sound.” I would add that the chorus are equally impressive with some really powerful and telling contributions.

I found it completely absorbing from beginning to end and thoroughly recommend it. There is a very short video trailer as well as the now customary sound samples via the links below, and do look out for the Proms broadcast on Radio 3 on Saturday with an almost identical cast to this recording.

A couple of other things worth mentioning this week: Firstly we have our usual Proms page now live on the website. Here you can easily find and browse recordings of the works being played at this year’s festival and see any specific discs which either through the artists, the repertoire or both are particularly relevant to each concert; and secondly if you like your opera we have recently launched our Summer Opera Sale which with nearly 1,000 discs included is by some distance the biggest opera sale we’ve ever run. Enjoy!

Rossini: Guillaume Tell (William Tell)

Gerald Finley (Guillaume Tell), John Osborn (Arnaud), Malin Byström (Mathilde), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Hedwige), Matthew Rose (Walter Furst), Orchestra e coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Antonio Pappano

Available Format: CD