Guillaume Tell, Rossini's milestone of Franco-Italian lyric impulses on a truly vast scale, is not often produced because of its formidable challenges. Curiously, the work was to have been the first of several Rossini works for Paris, but in fact it was his last opera. It requires all sorts of massive choruses,
a battery of demanding solo parts in both French and Italianate vocal styles, and tremendous scenic effects, with numerous stormy lakes, craggy cliffs, burning houses, and battle scenes.
To attempt to offer this masterwork in a concert version goes against the grain of this opera's monumentalism, but conductor Will Crutchfield did it, to his credit, and much of the opera's power was gorgeously unleashed—especially in the third and fourth acts. The librettists, Étienne de Jouy and Hippolite Bis, had to expand the dimensions of Schiller's play to fit the requirements of a Parisian grand opera, with ballets and other details, so that the first two acts seemed rather stately in comparison, especially in a concert format.
The Orchestra of St. Luke's vigorously played the score (the overture, expectedly, brought the house down), and it was very rewarding to hear the variety of Rossini's moods and orchestral details—at the height of his powers—in this fascinatingly rich score, from the use of Swiss folk melodies to the more massive choral sections, including a wonderful grouping of male choruses from the various cantons.
An excellent group of soloists tackled the large cast. Daniel Mobbs was Tell, heroic and noble, especially in the crucial, moving aria in which he tells his son to be still as he is about to shoot an arrow into the apple placed on his head—a fiendish requirement of the evil Austrian occupier. That role, Gesler, was powerfully and menacingly sung by Scott Bearden, who had a fortnight previously appeared as a menacing Dick Deadeye in Mr Crutchfield's attempt to present H.M.S, Pinafore as an exercise in British bel canto. The excellent Little Buttercup of that production, mezzo-soprano Vanessa Cariddi sang just as powerfully and intelligently as Tell's wife, Hedwidge. Talise Trevigne was the fine son, Jemmy, singing with youthful ardour.
The flashiest part was that of the Habsburg princess, Mathilde, who had the lion's share of solos and duets, and the role was sung with magnificent gusto by soprano Julianna Di Giacomo. Her lover, Arnold Melchtal, wavering between the Austrian occupiers and Swiss aspirations for freedom, was nicely done in a quite French tone by Michael Spyres, although the role is fiendishly difficult even for the most accomplished of tenors.
As Melchtal père, murdered early in the proceedings, bass Jeffrey Beruan was impressive, as were tenor Brian Downen, a fisherman, baritone Michael Nyby, a shepherd, and tenor Rolando Sanz, as a nasty henchman of Gesler. The chorus was hugely busy, especially in the two final finales, which were carried off with truly spectacular, emotional effect.
As musicologist Phillip Gossett remarked, the opera is generally cut, because of its excessive length, but Mr Crutchfiled wisely reinstated certain glorious passages that enchanted an audience not generally familiar with this work. The French diction was reasonably assured, and there were supertitles.
Caramoor, on a lavish estate an hour and a half from Manhattan, has a tented auditorium adjoining the Venetian Theatre. This can be exceptionally hot on a summer evening, but fortunately things cooled down by Act II. There is much picnicking on the lawns, à la Glyndebourne, but I didn't see anyone in dinner jackets and gowns; the New York summer is far hotter than Sussex, most of the time!
Photo credits: Thomas McDonald (first photo)
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