Though he is generally best known as the composer of some of the most popular comic operas of all time, like Il barbiere di Siviglia, for the past few decades Gioacchino Rossini’s opera seria have been experiencing a revival, leading to a new comprehension and appreciation of his whole output. Rossini was at the height of his fame as the greatest living opera composer when in 1824 he moved to Paris, taking the post of 'Directeur de la musique et de la scène du Théâtre Royal Italien', with the obligation to also compose new pieces  for the Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique (the Opéra Français).

Rossini
Rossini

But the scores to be written specifically for the Paris were postponed from year to year, as if Rossini felt the need to seize the full French music aura before what he considered an overwhelmingly important professional step: he got progressively closer to his goal with a new Italian opera on a French subject (Il Viaggio a Reims), an opéra-comique assembled on some  pre-existing music (Ivanhoé), two adaptations of earlier Italian works (Le Siege de Corinthe and Moïse et Pharaon), and a comic opera which was original only in appearance (Le Comte Ory), much of the musical material coming from his previous Il Viaggio a Reims.

From year to year, therefore, the expectation was growing for what was already considered in advance an event “of the greatest importance”, and when at last in 1828 the première of Guillaume Tell was announced, the attention of the Parisian public became paroxysmal. But the new opera was not ready yet: for the libretto, some texts by Eugène Scribe (the most reputable French librettist) were discarded, and finally the choice fell on a libretto by Etienne de Jouy, longwinded but scenically effective, which had been written for some time and had remained unused. The libretto was based on Friedrich von Schiller's play Wilhelm Tell (1804) about the legendary Switzerland's 14th century freedom-fighter.

Adolphe Nourrit, the first Arnold
Adolphe Nourrit, the first Arnold

Because of Scribe's poor health, some necessary changes were commissioned to Hippolyte Bis; however, we do not know how many more librettists got their hands on those lines since. Years later, Rossini himself circulated the names of Armand Marrast and Isaac Adolphe Cremieux. Also the tenor who created the role of Arnold, Adolphe Nourrit, seems to have given vent to his poetic inspiration, as he had for Le Comte Ory.

Finally, Rossini created his ultimate masterpiece, Guillaume Tell, which premièred on August 3, 1829, at the Salle Le Peletier. As the Paris Opéra then could count on the largest and best orchestra in Europe, the score of Guillaume Tell is the richest, longest and musically ambitious of Rossini's works. It was well received by the contemporary Parisian public and press, and, although it was originally a French opera, it was translated into Italian in the early 1830s, making it accessible to Italian audiences. After the Italian premiere of Guglielmo Tell in Lucca in 1831, the Italian version was more frequently performed than the original French one.

Rossini's score was subject to continuous changes during the rehearsals and in the course of the first performances, not to mention the interventions it underwent in later years, not all by Rossini. Many cuts brought the opera from its original four hours to a shorter length, closer to the format of 19th century melodrama; Rossini himself prepared a version of the opera in three acts, whose finale recovered the famous heroic theme that concludes the famous overture. 

While generally Rossini's overtures begin with a slow introduction and dynamic tunes leading to a crescendo, the overture to Guillaume Tell is Rossini’s longest and most ambitious one, uniquely containing four dramatically contrasting sections similar to the four movements of a symphony. This is one of the most powerful pages in Rossini’s catalogue, in which he abandons the sonata scheme of Italian symphonies to adopt a musical polyptych where the main emotional pillars of the work are depicted: love and patriotic pain; a sense of nature, both peaceful and disruptive; finally, the sense of revenge and victory to which the final heroic actions will lead. Under these circumstances, it is impossible to speak of one and only one authentic reading of the piece, but of a score open to numerous interpreting solutions. 

Eugénie Warnier (Jemmy) and Nicola Alaimo (Tell) at Dutch National Opera © Ruth Walz
Eugénie Warnier (Jemmy) and Nicola Alaimo (Tell) at Dutch National Opera
© Ruth Walz

The overture starts off with a cello solo, and ends with the galloping finale which perhaps contains Rossini's most familiar music. After the overture a chorus of villagers is introduced, and chorus returns in many scenes: how much Rossini relied on the chorus in Guillaume Tell is evident in Act II, which begins with a chorus of hunters and is concluded by choruses of men of the Swiss cantons. In Act III, groups of soldiers and Swiss villagers have a central position, as well as in the triumphant chorus of the glorious finale in Act IV.

In Paris, Rossini had carefully changed his compositional style to fine-tune the modes of the French language. While his previous operas usually maintained the formalities of the Baroque era, this work appears unfettered from earlier musical formulas: he avoided elaborate vocal embellishment in favour of a more extensive melodiousness, where his sense of invention flows endlessly, for pieces never return to where they started. The orchestration is richer than ever, and recitative, arias and choruses are better integrated. The latter are a fine example of Rossini's treatment of these operatic bel canto vocal forms. It is a score fully permeated by Romanticism, which indicated a completely new direction to opera. The arias, the style of vocal writing, and the instrumentation became the conventional models for Italian opera until about 1850. 

Bavarian State Opera's new production © Wilfried Hösl
Bavarian State Opera's new production
© Wilfried Hösl

Though he often re-used musical ideas of his operas, GuillaumeTell is a score one can feel could only have been written for that specific piece. Yet, paradoxically, as for Verdi’s Don Carlo there is not a definitive form of Guillaume Tell, as it exists in two languages and with many options in text and music. It is one of the first great masterpieces of the new Grand Opéra genre. It is a colossal work in every respect, with a massive cast of soloists, a huge chorus and orchestra, a corps de ballet, four acts and four hours of music in its full version.

Although he has been mainly perceived as an author of comic opera, an appreciation of Rossini would not be complete without Guillaume Tell. It was an amazing way to end a superb career, for Tell was to prove his last opera of the 39 he composed in the years from 1810 to 1829. After that date he retired from creating operas, although he composed the Petite messe solennelle and his Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of Old Age).

 

Next season, you can catch Guillaume Tell in new productions at Welsh National Opera and the Royal Opera, as well as a revival of this season's new production by Antú Romero Nunes at Bavarian State Opera.