30 March 2015

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini – GUILLAUME TELL (A. Foster-Williams, M. Spyres, J. Howarth, T. Stafford, A. Volpe, R. Facciolà; NAXOS 8.660363-66)

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini - GUILLAUME TELL (NAXOS 8.660363-66)GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Guillaume TellAndrew Foster-Williams (Guillaume Tell), Michael Spyres (Arnold Melcthal), Judith Howarth (Mathilde), Tara Stafford (Jemmy), Alessandra Volpe (Hedwige), Raffaele Facciolà (Gesler), Nahuel Di Pierro (Walter Furst, Melcthal), Marco Filippo Romano (Leuthold, Un chasseur), Giulio Pelligra (Rodolphe), Artavazd Sargsyan (Ruodi); Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań; Virtuosi Brunensis; Antonino Fogliani, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ at the Trinkhalle, Bad Wildbad, Germany on 13, 16, 18, and 21 July 2013 (XXV ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival); NAXOS 8.660363-66; 4 CDs, 252:21; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

The foremost lesson learned from incessant cycles of ‘farewell tours’ and legions of singers wobbling merrily through rôles they should no longer be singing is that important careers in opera and those who admire and support them deserve appropriately-timed, properly-planned finales. For the past 150 years, a popular theme among operatically-inclined musicologists and aficionados has been regret of​ the retirement from composing for the stage of the famously industrious Gioachino Rossini after the first performance of Guillaume Tell at the Théâtre de l'Académie Nationale de Musique on 3 August 1829. The composer was only thirty-seven years old at the time of his final opera's première and had almost thirty-nine more years ahead of him, but what has often been interpreted as a waste of resources motivated by laziness was almost certainly at least as much a carefully-calculated act of going out with a bang. Another popular pastime, especially among operatic sophisticates in the past half-century, has been disparaging Rossini's creative powers. As scores like La donna del lago and Il viaggio a Reims have joined Il barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola, and L'italiana in Algeri in the repertories of the world's most important opera houses, it is surely more apparent now than ever before in modern times that it was not solely for his penchant for writing great tunes that Rossini was heralded during his career as the Italian Mozart. Within days of its première, Guillaume Tell fell victim to the abundance of Rossini's genius: a work of Wagnerian dimensions in its original form, the opera was subjected to substantial cuts after only three performances, and by the time of its first revival in Paris a whole act had been excised. A prime attraction of this new recording of the opera from NAXOS, recorded during performances at the 2013 ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival, is the opportunity that it offers to hear Guillaume Tell in absolutely complete form, including not only the original score of 1829 but the amended finale devised for the three-act 1831 version, in which—remarkably—Rossini approved the suppression of Tell's celebrated air 'Sois immobile.' It is unfortunate that this performance could not have been recorded either in studio or during concert performances as the profusion of stage noise often intrudes upon appreciation of the singers' generally capable meeting of Rossini's extraordinary demands, but the NAXOS label again provides opera lovers with a valuable recording that combines admirable scholarship and modern production values with some fantastic old-fashioned stand-and-deliver singing.

A behemoth of a score even in truncated form, Guillaume Tell was familiar to a generation of Americans solely owing to the prominent use of the concluding section of its Overture as the theme of the popular television serial The Lone Ranger. Being Renaissance men of their era, the show’s stars, Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, likely had greater cognizance of the origins of their opening track than most of their contemporaries, but even in 2015, when Rossini rarities are performed throughout the world, a production of Rossini’s ultimum opus in any guise remains virtually unprecedented. Still, espousal by some of today’s foremost bel canto singers has hopefully engendered among the public at large a wider familiarity with the opera that extends beyond its famous Overture. In this performance, Antonino Fogliani presides over a taut, evocative account of the sprawling Overture by the Virtuosi Brunensis, each of its four sections granted careful consideration of its unique character. Upon that foundation, an exciting, generally accurately-played performance of the full score—including dance music—is constructed. Maestro Fogliani for the most part sets reasonable tempi, but a number of passages are compromised by extremes of speed. Both singer and chorus might have benefited from a slower tempo for Arnold’s ferocious cabaletta in Act Four. The tender music, of which there is more in Guillaume Tell than cut performances of the opera have often suggested, is paced with lightness and lyricism. This is a score in which the principals desperately need support rather than opposition from the pit, and, missteps notwithstanding, Maestro Fogliani maintains dedication to discerning the cast’s strengths and weaknesses throughout the opera. A decided strength in the performance is the singing of the Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań. More than in any of Rossini’s other operas except for the Biblical epics, the choristers play important rôles in the drama of Guillaume Tell, and, under the direction of Ania Michalak, they enact their parts in this performance with vigor. There are moments of untidy ensemble, but the great challenges are capably met. In Act One, both 'Hyménée, ta journée' and 'Gloire, honneur au fils de Tell' are energetically sung, and the choristers’ account of 'Quelle sauvage harmonie au son des cors se marie!' in Act Two is suitably awestruck. 'Gloire au pouvoir suprême!' and the spirited Tyrolienne, 'Toi que l'oiseau ne suivrait pas,' in Act Three receive from the chorus performances of stirring commitment, but it is rightly the final chorus in Act Four, 'Liberté, redescends des cieux,' that inspires the choristers to their finest singing. Rossini’s choral music in Guillaume Tell established a precedent followed by the poignant patriotic choruses in Verdi’s Nabucco and Macbeth, and this performance fully reveals not only how influential Rossini’s example was but also how sublimely effective the choral episodes in Guillaume Tell remain.

As though the difficulty of the music were not challenge enough for any company thinking of performing Guillaume Tell, the opera also requires a large cast, not one member of which can get away with lacking the technical acumen demanded by the score. Rossini productions at Bad Wildbad have not always been distinguished by high-quality singing in smaller rôles, and this production of Guillaume Tell is also undermined by inconsistent casting. In the parts of Walter Furst and Melcthal, Arnold's father, Argentine bass Nahuel Di Pierro sings powerfully, his resonant voice lending Walter’s lines in the Act Two trio with Arnold and Tell, 'Il est donc vrai,' crucial dramatic substance. Rodolphe, the captain of Gessler's archers, is strenuously sung by tenor Giulio Pelligra, who is heard to even lesser advantage as Arnold in the alternate finale to Rossini’s three-act version of the opera that NAXOS provides as a supplement to the complete Bad Wildbad performance. Soprano Diana Mian, appearing solely as Mathilde in the alternate finale, sings ably, delivering the top line in ensemble expertly. The shepherd Leuthold and an unnamed hunter are portrayed demonstratively by bass Marco Filippo Romano, who appears as Tell in the supplemental music. Such are Rossini’s excesses in Guillaume Tell that even the fisherman Ruodi, like Iopas in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, has a beautifully decorative song taking him to top C: young tenor Artavazd Sargsyan sings 'Accours dans ma nacelle' handsomely, his upper register not ideally free but projected with intelligence and grace.

Tell’s son Jemmy is sung with contrasting sweetness and piquancy by soprano Tara Stafford, who off the stage is the wife of this performance’s Arnold. Jemmy’s air in Act Three, ‘Ah, que ton âme se rassure,’ has often fallen victim to the heinous cuts imposed on Guillaume Tell, but Ms. Stafford justifies its inclusion in this complete-and-then-some performance by singing it winningly. Tell’s wife Hedwige receives from mezzo-soprano Alessandra Volpe a portrayal of integrity and plush vocalism. In reality, her luxurious singing makes the character seem more important than her music suggests that Rossini thought her to be. Ms. Volpe’s voicing of Hedwige’s lines in the Act Four trio with her son and Mathilde, ‘Je rends à votre amour,’ is lovely, but her phrasing of the Prière (also in Act Four), 'Toi, qui du faible est l'espérance,' is stirring. She and Ms. Stafford make an appealing wife and son of whom any Tell would be both protective and proud.

As sung by Catania-born bass Raffaele Facciolà, Gesler is a genuinely nasty piece of work, a three-dimensional, troubled despot rather than a cardboard operatic villain. Throughout the performance, Mr. Facciolà’s vocalism is more assertive than attractive, but he acts with the voice emphatically. He is at his best in Act Three, his sinewy declamation of 'Que l'empire germain de votre obéissance' hurled out with defiance. In ‘Tant l’orgueil me lasse,’ the quartet with Rodolphe, Tell, and Jemmy, his voice palpitates with frustration and thwarted menace. Without a credibly threatening Gesler at the center of the drama, Guillaume Tell is at risk of seeming like a celebration without a cause: the defeat of Mr. Facciolà’s Gesler provides this performance with a legitimate reason for rejoicing.

The Hapsburg Princess Mathilde, the unlikely heroine of Guillaume Tell whose love for Arnold wins her support for Swiss liberation, is portrayed with aristocratic grace and vocal elegance by British soprano Judith Howarth. Having proved herself a bel canto stylist to the manner born with her inspired depiction of the title rôle in Minnesota Opera’s 2011 production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, Ms. Howarth attacks Mathilde’s music unhesitatingly in this performance. Her musical portrait of the Princess combines qualities familiar from the recorded performances of her most acclaimed predecessors in the part: Carteri’s intuitive Romanticism, Cerquetti’s intensity, Caballé’s regal demeanor, Żylis-Gara’s security, Freni’s poise, and Studer’s fearlessness. Mathilde’s Act Two romance 'Sombre forêt, désert triste et sauvage' is one of Rossini’s most majestic arias for soprano, and Ms. Howarth sings it amazingly. No less beguiling is her singing in the duet with Arnold, 'Doux aveu,' another number in which Maestro Fogliani’s tempo jeopardizes the quality of the singers’ execution of the music. The air 'Pour notre amour plus d'espérance' in Act Three is shaped with passion by Ms. Howarth, and she fills her lines in the Act Four trio with Jemmy and Hedwige, 'Je rends à votre amour,' with lush, easily-produced tone. The coloratura demands of Mathilde are not as great as those of many of Rossini’s soprano parts, but Ms. Howarth leaves nothing to be desired with her deft handling of all aspects of Mathilde’s music and character.

It is inevitable that a performance featuring an Arnold capable of executing his voice-wrecking music impressively will be dominated by him. Indeed, merely surviving the rôle, the monstrous tessitura of which was famously spelled out by James Joyce, is admirable. American tenor Michael Spyres achieves far more than survival as recorded here. His voice is an astonishing instrument capable of brilliance in both the baritonal lower register demanded by much of Rossini’s writing for Andrea Nozzari and the stratospheric territory at and above C5 that is typical of rôles composed for Adolphe Nourrit, Rossini’s first Arnold, Gilbert Duprez, and Giovanni Battista Rubini. Mr. Spyres reaches the punishing high notes of his music with complete confidence, but the most enjoyable aspect of his work in this performance is his chameleonic dramatic versatility. His voicing of 'Le mien, dit-il! jamais, jamais le mien!' in Act One is rousingly masculine, and the indecision that he imparts in the duet with Tell, 'Ah! Mathilde, idole de mon Â​​me,' infuses Arnold with sympathetic credence. Mr. Spyres’s ardent singing in the Act Two duet with Mathilde, 'Doux aveu,' is ecstatic despite the battle he must fight to cope with Maestro Fogliani’s conducting, and his part in ‘Il est donc vrai,’ the trio with Walter and Tell, is authoritatively accomplished. Arnold’s air and cabaletta in Act Four are the pieces anxiously awaited by audiences fortunate enough to witness a performance of Guillaume Tell. A tenor’s stamina and technique are put to the test as nowhere else in opera in the air ‘Asile héréditaire’ and its cabaletta ‘Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance,’ but Mr. Spyres, aided by the committed singing of his colleagues, makes the wait seem very brief indeed. The range and impact of Mr. Spyres’s upper register are hardly surprising: his E5—requested by the composer rather than an interpolation as has been asserted by some sources—in Polyeucte’s [a Duprez rôle] cabaletta ‘Oui, j’irai dans leurs temples’ in Opera Rara’s 2014 concert performance of Donizetti’s Les Martyrs electrified the London audience, and his Raoul in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots at Bard College in 2009 was marked by assured negotiation of the part’s troublesome tessitura. He does not make singing Act Four of Guillaume Tell sound easy, but the singer who does that cannot be human. Maestro Fogliani does not permit him to linger over his top Cs, but he ascends to them and to the climatic top D spectacularly. Not even the sensitive Nicolai Gedda affirmed as irrefutably as Mr. Spyres that Arnold is far more than a sequence of flashy high notes, however: the heart, not just the throat, aches for this thoughtful, deeply conflicted young firebrand.

Equaling a performance as commanding as Mr. Spyres’s is a fearsome proposition, but British bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams manages to do so with panache and bold, focused singing and thus restores the title character to the prominence that he deserves. Often a revelatory presence in Baroque repertory, Mr. Foster-Williams has amassed an impressively varied gallery of operatic portrayals that includes a detailed, surprisingly sympathetic Golaud in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and a mellifluous Balstrode in Britten’s Peter Grimes. His Tell in this performance is a tantalizing glimpse of what he is likely to achieve as he continues his journey into Verdi baritone repertory. In a sense, Tell might be considered one of the first great rôles in what is now regarded as Verdi’s style of composition for the baritone voice. Possessing elements of the histrionic power of Rigoletto, the dignity of Rodrigue [a rôle created by Jean-Baptiste Faure, who was also a celebrated Guillaume Tell], and the good humor of Falstaff, Tell was first sung by Henri-Bernard Dabadie, who was also Donizetti’s original Belcore in L’elisir d’amore. Gone are the bravura and patter of Figaro and Dandini: they are replaced by intense but always musical utterance of the kind familiarized by Verdi’s Macbeth, and in his fulfillment of the part’s demands Mr. Foster-Williams brings commanding charisma to a rôle that requires nothing less. In Tell’s Act One duet with Arnold, 'Ah! Mathilde, idole de mon Âme,' the reliability of Mr. Foster-Williams’s well-honed technique is immediately apparent, and his vocalism possesses equal rations of iron and velvet. The character’s singularity of purpose is meaningfully conveyed in Tell’s Act Two trio with Arnold and Walter, 'Il est donc vrai,’ the security of the singer’s voice evident in the incredible breath control on display in his generous phrasing. The pinnacle of Rossini’s music for Tell is the recitative 'Je te bénis' and air 'Sois immobile, et vers la terre incline au genou suppliant' in Act Three. How is it possible that this music was ever cut or that the composer could have sanctioned its excision? Musically and dramatically, ‘Sois immobile’ is worthy of comparison with Rigoletto’s monologues and Renato’s ‘Eri tu che macchiavi quell'anima in Un ballo in maschera, and Mr. Foster-Williams sings it accordingly. Tell is a stern, often unyielding character, but Mr. Foster-Williams establishes a core of humanity that spurs Tell’s actions. The rôle’s tessitura is higher than that of much of the music in which this exceptional artist has shone in past, but he has built the technique necessary to project the voice evenly throughout the range. Not all of Tell’s highest notes, cresting on G, are produced without effort, but Mr. Foster-Williams is a shrewd singer who puts fleeting moments of vocal stress to clever dramatic use. Most vitally, he is a Guillaume Tell who reminds the listener that the opera’s title is not Arnold.

There are enough shortcomings in this recording of Guillaume Tell to render this a somewhat disappointing release. With acclaimed recent performances both in the United States and in Europe and the opera being scheduled to return to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in the 2016 – 2017 Season after an absence of eighty-five years, the time for reassessment of Guillaume Tell and its significance in Rossini’s career and the development of Nineteenth-Century opera on all sides of the Alps has come. It is a score that was dismissed as a bloated, rambling monstrosity by several generations of critics who likely never even heard it performed—not in anything resembling its original form, at any rate. Like the indomitable spirit of the nation in which it is set, Guillaume Tell is a work that is not easily tamed, one that damns modest efforts to failure. It is a Brobdingnagian work but a resplendent one, a fitting finale to the operatic career of one of the genre’s most original composers. This NAXOS recording ultimately falls short of the standard needed to fully do justice to the score. Would Rossini have minded? With singers of the calibre of Andrew Foster-Williams, Michael Spyres, and Judith Howarth performing as they do on this recording, Rossini would almost certainly have been delighted by this traversal of Guillaume Tell—yes, Maestro, all of it!