When William Tell stirs his peers to rebellion to free themselves from the foreign yoke, a young man has to choose between the love for his oppressor’s sister and his aspirations for liberty.
Having become the rallying cry of the 1830 revolution, Rossini’s final opera is nothing short of revolutionary itself. Retelling the legend of the Swiss folk hero based on Schiller’s play, Guillaume Tell is a grandiose ode to freedom. Enjoy this production, brought to you from the 2013 Rossini Opera Festival in conjunction with Unitel, for 3 months on OperaVision.
Juan Diego Flórez
Ruodi, a fisherman
Leuthold / A hunter
Teatro Communale di Bologna
Teatro Communale di Bologna
Giuseppe di Iorio
Victor-Joseph Étienne de Jouy & L. F. Bis
Guillaume Tell laments the oppression of the Swiss by the Habsburgs in the company of his wife Hedwige and his son Jemmy. Their village is preparing three weddings to be officiated by old Melcthal. His son Arnold, a friend of Guillaume Tell, is in love with the Habsburg princess Mathilde, which is irreconcilable with his people’s aspirations for freedom.
While the weddings are in full swing, the imperial bailiff and Austrian leader Gesler’s hunting procession can be heard. The shepherd Leuthold hurries ahead, having killed an Austrian soldier who wanted to kidnap his daughter. Tell whisks Leuthold to safety across Lake Lucerne. Arnold has secretly left for his beloved. Rodolphe, leader of Gesler's soldiers, searches the village for Leuthold. Since no one tells him who helped Leuthold to escape, Rodolphe sets the village on fire and arrests old Melcthal.
Hunters and herdsmen praise the joys of the Swiss mountains and nature. Mathilde has left the hunt to meet Arnold, they confess their love for each other. As soon as Arnold attains military dignity, he may ask for Mathilde's hand. She withdraws when Tell and the resistance fighter Walter Furst approach. The men inform Arnold that his father, old Melcthal, was killed by the Austrians. They mistrust him because he loves the princess. Arnold is deeply moved and declares his loyalty to the conspirators. Representatives of all Swiss cantons appear, declare Tell their leader and swear the Rütlischwur, which seals their intrepid fight for their freedom.
At a castle ruin, Arnold warns Mathilde that despite his feelings for her, he will avenge his father and remain loyal to his country, and refuses to flee with her. They separate in the knowledge that it is a farewell forever.
In the village of Altdorf, Gesler stages a celebration of Habsburg sovereignty and orders that all Swiss people should kneel before a statue with his hat on. When Tell and Jemmy refuse, Gesler forces Tell to shoot an apple from his son's head. Tell succeeds in the shot, but when another arrow slips out of his sleeve, he must confess that he would have used it to kill Gesler if he had missed his first target. He is sentenced to death and taken away. Mathilde takes Jemmy with her.
Arnold laments Tell's arrest in his hut and calls on his comrades for armed insurrection.
Hedwige is desperate and wants to join her family to die with them when Mathilde brings the unharmed Jemmy to her. Jemmy sets the hut on fire, which is the agreed sign of the Swiss to fight.
Tell is to be rowed across Lake Lucerne by Gesler and his men for his sentence to be carried out. When fog and a storm come up, Tell's shackles are loosened, because he alone can navigate the boat safely. Shortly before docking, Tell jumps ashore onto a rock and abandons the boat. His wife and son hurry to him and give him his crossbow. Tell sees the burning hut and shoots Gesler, who managed to save himself. Walter and his people appear and rejoice at the oppressor’s death. Arnold and his men also appear and announce the liberation of Altdorf. The Swiss celebrate Tell as their liberator and sing of a new age of peace and freedom.
Guillaume Tell: freedom for all
Rossini was only 31 when he set foot in Paris. He could already look back on an illustrious career spanning 12 years and over 30 operas. His brilliant, brisk style and dizzying vocal numbers had led him to considerable success in Italy. At the Paris Opera, an audience awaited him that enjoyed this style but was also used to great opera with a prominent choir and long dance interludes. With titles such as Zelmira (Vienna 1822) or Semiramide (Naples 1823), Rossini had already been able to prove his vision of grand opéra. He took the time to familiarize himself with the new circumstances - not least of them the complicated disposition in the house.
In its integral version, the opera lasts five hours and exists in more versions than any other of Rossini's operas. He hustled from rehearsal to rehearsal with frequently changing cast on stage and in the pit, which was usual in that place. It was only in the course of the rehearsals that it became clear which pieces actually made it to the opening and which were dropped. The completely new musical material - the previous Parisian operas were all arrangements of older works - also contains a few folkloristic notes: for instance, the Ranz des Vaches, a folkloristic country dance, finds its way onto the Parisian stage.
Even though it was not close to his heart, Rossini adopted a topical subject: Freedom and the associated struggles of other peoples were absolutely en vogue in Paris a few years before the July Revolution. This is reflected in Rossini's operas written at that time: in Le Siège de Corinthe (1826) the Greeks would rather die than submit to the Ottomans, in Moïse (1827) the Hebrews liberate themselves from Egyptian oppression and move to the promised land. Guillaume Tell (1830), based on Schiller's drama Willhelm Tell, about the Swiss rebelling against Habsburg foreign rule, also fits into this trend. The librettists do not establish a Swiss national myth, but offer the audience an exotic projection surface for their own dreams of freedom; the Alps with their gorges were as alien to Parisian audiences as the Egyptian desert.
Tell is the last opera Rossini composed, even if it was planned quite differently. In 1829 he signed a contract, countersigned by Charles X himself, in which he committed himself exclusively to the Académie Royale de Musique with at least five operas for the next ten years and secured a lucrative monthly pension. In 1830, Tell was thus the first of five planned operas, but shortly afterwards, in the course of the July Revolution, Charles X was overthrown and Rossini's contract thus invalidated. While he fought in court for the observance, i.e. payment of his contract, he himself did not want to break the exclusivity clause contained therein and stopped composing for the time being. When the legal dispute was finally settled in his favour in 1835, Rossini had indeed retired mentally - so this opera was also a release from his professional duties for him.
Graham Vick, the director, explains in an interview about the production in Pesaro: Il mio pubblico preferito è popolare [...] Nessuno possiede l'arte (My ideal audience is not elitist [...] Art belongs to no one). In his Tell, he shows the struggle between a rebellious people and a greedy, sadistic clique of oppressors with horse models against the backdrop of snow-covered peaks - rather coincidentally, it seems, they are Swiss against Habsburgs - just as the Paris premiere was not primarily about the setting, but about the principle of a hard-won freedom.
This article is inspired by texts from programme notes of Dr. hc. Reto Müller and Nicholas Payne.