Whenever opera-lovers are canvassed about what neglected operas they hunger to see revived, the resulting lists inevitably feature a goodly number of grand operas, those once wildly popular monstrosities–particularly by Meyerbeer–written primarily for Paris in the mid-19th century. Yet despite the enthusiasm of their advocates, these works have had a hard time regaining a place in the repertoire in the 21st century. Although a recent revival of Auber’s La Muette de Portici was well received at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, Covent Garden’s splashy new Robert le Diable by Meyerbeer flopped and the Met has never revived its 2003 production of Halévy’s La Juive.
But Rossini’s 1829 opera of Swiss resistance to its Austrian occupiers Guillaume Tell, the work cited along with La Muette as having started the grand opera genre, appears recently to be achieving that toehold. Following a dark and dreary production last summer at the Bavarian State Opera, Covent Garden mounts its new Tell next June conducted by one of the work’s biggest advocates Antonio Pappano who recently released a recording on EMI taken from live performances in Rome. And the Met imports Amsterdam’s recent staging by Pierre Audi in the fall of 2016 for the opera’s first Met performances in 85 years.
Despite its French birth, Tell has a long history of being performed in Italy in Italian: Riccardo Muti, a longtime supporter of the work and Mr. Come Scritto, has never conducted it in French. So Italian opera houses are getting in on the current trend with Teatro Communale di Bologna having performed it (albeit in French) as recently as October with, as Arnold, tenor Michael Spyres who also sang it at the 2011 Caramoor Festival. But the big news has been that the Teatro Regio Torino under its Music Director and Conductor Gianandrea Noseda brought its Guglielmo Tell to the US and Canada for a four-city tour of alighting Sunday afternoon at a packed Carnegie Hall.
With an uneven roster of eleven vocal soloists, a 75-member orchestra and a 70-member chorus, Noseda led a vibrant, thrilling reading of a roughly three-hour cut of the score making a very strong case for this neglected work. Yet, as a great lover of Rossini’s operas, I’ve always had a bit of a blind spot about Tell. As a kid I avoided the important complete Lamberto Gardelli recording, as I just couldn’t wrap my head around a Rossini work on five LPs—as long as a Wagner opera! So I first learned the opera from a pirate tape of a brutally-cut performance from the Teatro Colón with a stylish Gabriel Bacquier in the title role and a crudely exciting Gianni Raimondi as Arnoldo. But mostly I ignored Tell and instead explored other rarities, discovering marvelous works like La Pietra del Paragone and Torvaldo e Dorliska.
During yesterday’s performance I wondered why Tell fails to move me—a reaction I remember having both at that recent Caramoor concert and while watching the webstream from Munich. While I marveled as never before at the astonishing inventiveness of Rossini’s orchestral writing for Tell, it again struck me what a static and undramatic opera it is. Everyone stands around describing at great length what he’s going to do, but nearly all the important action happens off-stage. The title character is mostly a cipher, coming briefly to life only in the tense scene with his son and the apple. The lovers Matilde and Arnoldo have much of the score’s best music, yet it’s difficult to get very interested in their formulaic star-crossed relationship.
While the thrillingly full-voiced Torino group was in top form, the work’s many choruses just don’t propel the action forward. I was reminded more than once of dramatically inert (if musically glorious) choruses in Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer. The luminous exception to the stasis in Tell is, of course, the justly famous finale which, ironically, is the one number in the score you wished went on longer.
Because of the grandeur and sweep of Noseda’s vision and perhaps his judicious cuts, the performance proved greater than the sum of its parts. The villains, Gabriele Sagona as Gessler and Saverio Fiore as his crony Rodolfo, were the weakest links. Anna Maria Chiuri’s blowsy mezzo as Edwige marred the moving trio before the finale, and while Marina Bucciarelli’s piping soprano was appropriately boyish one wished it was used with more consistency. On the other hand, Marco Spotti as Gualtiero and Fabrizio Beggi as Metchtal revealed pleasingly substantial basses. Tenor Mikeldi Atxalandabaso’s fisherman flaunted enviable high D-flats but also a harsh timbre.
The third singer announced for the title role, Luca Salsi sang a secure but dull Tell. He pumped out the volume when needed but brought no pathos or nuance to his “Resta immobile” and his colorless baritone did little with the words. As Matilde, Angela Meade had a frustrating afternoon. Having most recently heard the American soprano in one of her best performances as a coruscating Lucrezia Borgia, I was disappointed by her disengaged, bland demeanor. The strong vibrato which doesn’t usually bother me but dismays so many listeners this time proved harsh and unwieldy. That said, the lilting “Selva opaca” was nicely done, as was the sweeping duet with Arnoldo although there was little chemistry between the lovers. Her florid aria in act III challenged her usually formidable technique and nearly defeated her. Still, one would like to hear her tackle the role again when she’s in better form.
With its impossibly high tessitura, Arnold/Arnoldo has been a specialty of tenor John Osborn who appears on the recent Pappano CD and will star in the new Covent Garden production. He didn’t make much of an impression when I first heard him years ago as Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi at New York City Opera nor as Goffredo in the recent MET production of Rossini’s Armida but recent Verdi performances at Caramoor as Henri in Les Vêpres Siciliennes and the Duke in Rigoletto have shown him to be a generous and fearless performer. However, when he presses for volume there is a bleat to the voice that can be exceptionally ugly. To his credit he sang the demanding “O muto asil” with real sensitivity on Sunday and scored a success. However, the subsequent cabaletta, the thrilling “Corriam” which provided Verdi with the model for Il Trovatore’s “Di quella pira,” sadly found Osborn struggling badly. Happily, he gave a much more stirring rendition of the entire scena (in French) recently in Amsterdam.
Bookended by its famously infectious overture and that gloriously concise and optimistic ending, Tell remains a complex, frustrating, occasionally irresistible and forward-looking grand opera. Given the precarious state of opera in Italy it’s all the more remarkable that this massive international tour happened at all, and one was both grateful to the large assembled forces of the Teatro Regio Torino for presenting such a compelling show and happy that the commanding Noseda will continue making music with them for the foreseeable future.