Rossini’s William Tell starts with one of the most famous pieces of Western music: the overture, ending with what used to be known as the Lone Ranger theme song. But the music that comes after is just as good, and hardly anyone has heard it. A new recording of Rossini’s last opera, by conductor Antonio Pappano, is the first in 20 years, and only the second to use the original French words. The story of the Swiss freedom fighter, and his ability to shoot an apple off his son’s head, is rarely produced because it’s “over four hours long, expensive to cast and to rehearse,” says Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, who sings the title role for Pappano. Their collaboration may go a long way toward proving something even Rossini doubted himself: this piece is long, but worth performing.
Pappano has been on a mission to revive Tell. He explains in the accompanying booklet that its importance “struck me like a thunderbolt,” and he managed to get EMI to record his series of live concerts in Rome (with enthusiastic applause included after some numbers). As the biggest opera Rossini ever wrote, it had a major influence on epic opera and theatre, making it possible to write musical theatre on huge political themes. “This is one of the first examples of grand opera,” Finley says. “A love interest intertwines with historic fact, treachery and successful rebellion.”
If the story is unusually weighty for an opera, the music also comes as a surprise to people who know Rossini from light comedies like The Barber of Seville. Instead of the display pieces that have made Rossini a favourite with singers, Tell has a more serious approach. Finley says that the role of Tell “is different from Rossini’s other lead roles in that it does not have a showy aria,” and instead climaxes in “a brief prayer-like piece directed to his son before the famous arrow-through-the-apple scene.” The most important role in the show is not for the star singers but the chorus, which provides the highlight of the second act as several groups gather to fight against an oppressive government. Almost every composer of operas in the 19th century was influenced by scenes like these; the composer Hector Berlioz, who hated Rossini and his influence, was won over by the “emotion and anguish” in Tell’s aria.
Admiring the music is one thing, though; finding money to put it on is another. Tell requires special effects and big sets to represent the Swiss Alps, and Finley says it needs “a huge male chorus” and “exemplary choreography” for the many dance scenes. And the work has dramatic problems that often defeat directors. Except for the apple, most of the actual action happens offstage, so the audience has to sit through four hours of the characters singing about tyranny and oppression, only to find that the revolution happens in the wings.
Even if producers can deal with all this, they still need to cast the tenor part—Tell’s young sidekick, who gets to be the romantic lead—and it has so many high notes that few singers will take it on. Luciano Pavarotti refused to perform it live, calling it “impossible,” while Finley says it’s a challenge to find the “extraordinarily accomplished tenors” Rossini asks for. John Osborn, the American tenor who sings the part for Pappano, makes it through the recording unscathed, with a voice a bit light for the music.
Still, there’s an increased interest in bringing the piece to our attention. Concerts have been one solution: Pappano brought his version to the BBC Proms, England’s most prestigious series of concerts, while in the U.S., a concert version was presented at the Caramoor International Music Festival in New York. And theatres are starting to experiment with ways of reviving it, including taking it out of the lederhosen and into the modern world. A recent production at the Zurich Opera featured the characters in contemporary dress and carrying Swiss chocolate. All of these productions agree on one thing, though: for all its dramatic flaws, this is Rossini like music fans have never heard him anywhere else. “He really summons up something huge, and sustains it over a vast time span,” Pappano told the Daily Telegraph. And the overture’s good too.