Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sunday Classics: So why is this fellow William Tell so angry anyways?


With its singular geography, Lake Lucerne, known to German-speaking Swiss as the Vierwaldstättersee, the Lake of the Four Forest Cantons, links the three original cantons, Uri, Schwyz, and Unterhalden (which is now split, as shown on our map, into Obwalden and Nidwalden), as well as latecomer Luzern. The lake plays a vital role in Act II of William Tell.

by Ken

Other Europeans aren't overly fond of the Swiss, who are widely regarded as smug and complacent in the face of their beautiful physical surroundings, which have by and large shielded them from the march of armies across the rest of the continent, and their generally high level of material comfort, often perceived to be at the expense of consideration of other human values.

The Switzerland of William Tell's time wasn't a country; it was a confederation of the original cantons. Well, not even that in Tell's time, since the confederation had been under rigid Austrian occupation for 100 years. In Act III, the tyrannical Austrian governor, Gessler, has the chutzpah to demand that the Swiss celebrate the anniversary of the occupation, which quickly escalates into Gessler's order to do the apple-shooting thing as a punishment for his disrespect.

In the opera as in real life, at least the way the Swiss are commonly perceived, it takes a lot to shake them out of their complacency. In the opera, the breaking point is reached when the brutal Gessler has old Melchthal, Arnold's father, summarily executed, finally driving the complacent Swiss to armed insurrection. At the end of Act II, it's via Lake Lucerne, the Lake of the Four Forest Cantons, under cover of darkness, that the men of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden arrive at the clandestine gathering where they swear vengeance against and liberation from the Austrians.

We're going to come back to that remarkable scene, the finale of Act II of this last opera of Rossini (1792-1868). First, though, we should perhaps say something about the remarkable circumstance of William Tell (1829) being his last opera. As you can see, he lived in reasonably good health and financial comfort in Paris for almost 40 more years -- longer than he had lived when he "retired" from the stage. We don't know why he retired, because he never troubled to explain it to anyone. We don't even know that it was a clear decision in his mind to retire. He didn't stop composing, but he doesn't seem ever to have seriously considered writing another opera.

We can certainly speculate, though. Tell, an extraordinarily long (uncut, it's of Wagnerian length) and complex opera, had been a massive undertaking, and it really hadn't worked. He had come to Paris with grand ambitions, thinking that the Paris Opera would be the place where he could really create some large-scale dramas. But on the whole he found himself struggling against much the same forces of incomprehension and indifference that Verdi would encounter when he attempted to write for the Paris Opera, and came to appreciate what Rossini had gone through.

For Tell, Rossini had attempted to reconstitute his entire musico-dramatic arsenal, largely turning away from the showy set pieces that had been his traditional operatic building blocks, working for a more through-composed structure. And yet it really hadn't worked, at least as far as the opera house and the public were concerned. He may simply not have know what the next step from there might be -- and in particular how he would get there in the face of such impossible working conditions. And he was of course a rich man from his earlier successes. He didn't need that kind of headache and heartache.

It would be nice to report that history has vindicated Rossini, but William Tell remains an incredibly tough sell. Oh, the scholars have come around; they will tell you, and quite correctly, what a masterpiece it is and why. What they can't do, or at least haven't been able to do, is to show performers how they can make these wonders live for audiences on the stage. The William Tell I love, I realize, has been largely created in my head, out of an accumulation of contact with the score and recorded performances. In my head, I can even make dramatic sense of the subplot, in which young Arnold Melchthal, son of a revered Swiss patriot, has fallen in love with the Hapsburg princess Mathilde. But I'll be damned if I have any idea how to make it real and important for a paying crowd. Still, for me this doesn't make Tell any less treasurable a masterpiece. Its maybe an, um, "special needs" one.


At this point, while I'm truly reluctant to get into it, I'm going to drag out a genuine curio. It will give you a certain tiny amount of information about William Tell, and a shadow of a sampling of the music, though on both counts it may mislead you more than it informs. Perhaps more than anything it will show you what we're up against in trying to take this opera seriously.

In 1948 something called First Opera Film Festival, was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. It was a film that consisted of filmed excerpts from four operas, with narrations by New York Times music critic Olin Downes. It was reviewed in Downes's own paper on May 31, by "A.W.":
The merits of perpetuating opera on film notwithstanding, "First Opera Film Festival," which began a stand at the Little Carnegie on Saturday, is dreary film fare. As was the case in some of the picturizations of operas imported from Italy in the past, the camera and not the sound track is the villain of the piece. For the camera has caught herein obvious stage sets and a preponderance of exaggerated and static histrionics, which are neither moving nor funny. "First Opera Film Festival," which deviates from the norm in presenting the more important passages from four operas rather than one entire work, is, in short, aural and not visual entertainment.

Seeking a departure from the usual format, the producers have employed actors for the characterizations from "William Tell," "Carmen," "Don Pasquale" and "The Marriage of Figaro." And, most of the voices heard are dubbed in. Neither the singing principals nor the choruses of the Rome Opera and Milan's La Scala are extensively familiar, with the exception of Cloe Elmo, now of the Metropolitan, and Tito Gobbi, who has been seen and heard in previous importations. The latter, incidentally, is one of the few personalities who both appear and sing. For the record, it should be noted that the narration spoken by this newspaper's music critic, is objective and casual enough to keep the untutored informed and the cognoscenti happy.

I haven't looked for the others, but I can report that the William Tell portion of this odd project, some 21 minutes' worth, is on YouTube in three parts, and as regards the visual, er, spectacle, A.W. is quite right about the dreadfulness of it. (It sounds, for example, as if under happier circumstances tenor José Soler might actually have made something of the cruelly difficult role of Arnold, but what sense are we to make of dubbing in his voice for an actor so awful, he breaks new ground in operatic-acting awfulness?) And as regards the musical quality, at least in the case of the William Tell segment A.W. was really too kind -- with occasional partial exceptions like Soler's Arnold, it's beyond dreadful.

I don't know if you're ready for this. I know I'm not. Nevertheless, here's Part 1:

In the event that you're hankering for more, here's Part 2 and Part 3. For the record, the scene that includes the shooting of the apple, which we've been talking about these last two days, is introduced at 5:10 of Part 2, and you figure that Part 3 is going to include Tito Gobbi as Tell singing "Resta immobile," but no, no mention is even made that such a thing happens.

A.W. is also, perhaps more understandably, too kind to his senior colleague Mr. Downes. On the one hand, much of what he says about the opera's chronicling of how the complacent Swiss are ultimately driven to rise up against the Austrian tyranny is absolutely true. Which makes the unctuousness of his delivery all the more unfortunate. It surely has the effect of making viewers reject out of hand whatever he's blithering about -- and I suspect it had this same effect on viewers in 1948 as it does now. In any event, the comic-book cluelessness of the performance makes Downes's grandiose claims sound like nonsense.


As it happens, Tell's "Sois immobile," or in Italian "Resta immobile," as we far more often encounter it, was my point of entry, via a wonderful mega-recital called The Art of Tito Gobbi which the baritone recorded for EMI in 1963.

Sometimes the record-company people, bless 'em, get it right. It was presumably in recognition of Gobbi's 50th birthday that year that his comrades-in-arms at EMI conceived this two-LP set, consisting of four mini-recitals: a side each of operatic arias, with Alberto Erede conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra; "Classical Songs and Arias (Arie Antiche)," accompanied by harpsichord cello, and guitar; "Italian and Neapolitan Popular Songs," with appropriate orchestral accompaniment; and Italian "Romantic Songs (Arie Romantiche)," with pianist Gerald Moore. Eventually Angel put it out on the budget Seraphim label, nicely packaged. [The photo is of the original British issue, though.] I listened to that set a lot. Have I mentioned that the first aria on side 1, the operatic mini-recital, was "Resta immobile"? (Yes, that's the recording that was included among our seven preview versions of the aria.)

Now contrary to the breathless encomia you'll read on the Intertubes, Gobbi not only wasn't the great baritone of the age, it would be hard to call him a great baritone. The voice always had severe limitations: no real top, just a shout that got him up to maybe F or with a favoring wind F-sharp, a severe limitation of coloristic variety beyond that burly, snarly quality he used for emphasis. As an interpreter, he sometimes did serious work, but a lot of what passed for dramatic insight was really vocal gimmicks -- some no doubt calculated to paper over his vocal shortcomings -- of the "Look, Ma, I'm interpreting" school.

That said, he was a performer of stature, and when he worked hard, he could surprise you. Among the many operas he recorded for EMI with Maria Callas, I think I would pick Verdi's Un Ballo in maschera as the one that represents him most favorably, and I would have thought the role of Renato would really tax that unruly upper range.

I was really surprised -- pleasantly, I mean -- when I relistened to that "Resta immobile" recording, made as I noted when Gobbi was 50. I've listened to it again a bunch of times in the last couple of days. Here it is again:

For one thing, it's sung beautifully, without Gobbi's normal vocal pressing and intepretive hectoring. It's sung, for the most part, with directness and simplicity, and it rises nobly to the climaxes. An opera that has music of such eloquence at its center has to be worth getting to know, I always thought. And I've found it indeed to be a pleasure.


I know, for starters, that if William Tell is to be made to work, the opening scene, where Rossini characterizes the harmonious life of the Swiss via a lovely chorus and a catchy genre piece for a tenor fisherman, has to be made dramatically real. I'm not holding my breath. But just to give you an idea here is the startling interchange between the fisherman (an exceptionally difficult song for the tenor singing this tiny part), expressing his joys on this fine day as he woos a young lass, and my Angriest Man in Opera, the seething William Tell (tenor Charles Burles and baritone Gabriel Bacquier, in EMI's French-language recordingof the opera conducted by Lamberto Gardelli), joined in the ensemble by Tell's wife Hedwige (mezzo Jocelyne Taillon) and son Jemmy (soprano Mady Mesplé), dreading the consequences of their guy's blunt speaking. Tell declares at 2:12:

What a burden is life!
For us no more fatherland!
He sings, and Switzerland
weeps, weeps for its freedom.


Now to return to the great scene that concludes Act II. After Tell, Arnold Melchthal, and their coconspirator Walter Furst have committed themselves, in a crucial trio, to vengeance for Melchthal, Tell (baritone Giorgio Zancanaro -- this is the Muti-La Scala-Philips recording,with tenor Chris Merritt as Arnold and bass Giorgio Surjan as Walter) hears a distant stirring in the forest.

At 1:31 the arriving party announces itself as "Friends of the fatherland, friends of the fatherland" -- and at 3:24 Tell welcomes "you generous sons of Unterwalden." Next it is the men of Schwyz arriving, and then Tell's fellow men of Uri, all swearing allegiance to Tell:

Tell declares:

The avalanche that crashes
from the mountaintops
and leaves dead soil on our fields
wishes us less harm,
less deadly intent
than an evil tyrant bears toward us.

And eventually the representatives of the "three peoples" swear an oath to right their wrongs against the tyrant.

That's really all we have time for. I'm just hoping that if we listen one last time to the William Tell Overture, the thrilling climax may have a somewhat larger resonance than the Lone Ranger. Here are Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony:


The current list is here.



At 2:32 PM, Anonymous robert dagg murphy said...

Thank you, this is all so very beautiful. What a great juxtaposition with all the political disappointments.

At 3:22 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks, Robert! People do kind of have a habit of not changing a whole lot over time. It may LOOK different, but looks can be deceiving.


At 4:18 PM, Anonymous Balakirev said...

That's it: I'm going to pull out some old discs, and send you on a cut of Leon Escalais in the opera. Now that you've brought the work up, I can't get his voice out of my mind again, and despite the age of it (all the way back to the first years of the 20th century), he's phenomenal!


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