On Saturday night, Antonio Pappano and his Roman orchestra and chorus, the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, brought us the first opera of the 2011 Proms- Gioachino Rossini's William Tell. More commonly performed as Guglielmo Tell with an Italian libretto, Pappano and Santa Cecilia first began concert performances of this rarely heard original French version in 2010, and have since made a live recording of it for EMI which has received both critical and popular acclaim. Saturday's performance was historic in that it was the first time the opera has been performed at a Prom. It also reunited several singers from the recording and gave British audiences their first taste of Pappano's wonderful musical interpretation of Rossini's final opera.

© BBC / Chris Christodoulou
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou

Based on Friedrich Schiller's play Wilhelm Tell, the opera tells the story of the legendary 14th century revolutionary hero Tell whose beloved Switzerland was ruled by Austria. Determined to overthrow the oppressors (most notably the villainous governor Gessler) he had to overcome a number of obstacles first, including his friend Arnold's love for the Austrian princess Mathilde and Gessler's cruel demand that he prove his skill as an archer by shooting an arrow through an apple resting on his son Jemmy's head.

William Tell's extremely spirited overture, rousing finale and a few of the arias and duets in between such as Où vas-tu are well known to all, but this four hour opera (condensed slightly by Pappano and Santa Cecilia, who are sure that Rossini would have approved) is full of beautiful arias, duets and choral pieces. It has all of the trademark Rossini sparkle with some wonderful hunting horns added to the mix, and the dynamic sounds were played and sung with exuberance and precision by Santa Cecilia. As soon as Pappano picked up the baton, the audience were mesmerised. From the overture's tiny, extremely soft beginning to the dark dramatic evocation of a storm to the world famous manic cavalry charge, Santa Cecilia seem to have an intrinsic understanding of the Italian composer's works and sustained the intensity and pace throughout.

In the title role of William Tell, Italian bass-baritone Michele Pertusi brought a lovely warmth and depth that seemed absolutely perfect for this heroic protagonist, but the audience reserved most of their appreciation for the opera's young lovers. Swedish soprano Malin Byström was extroadinary in the role of Mathilde, her rich velvety voice filling the Royal Albert Hall with its beauty. Byström, who sings the role on the recording, has performed in a number of European opera houses and will alternate Margeurite in Gounod's Faust with Angela Gheorghiu at the Royal Opera House next season. Her Sombre forêt, désert triste et sauvage ('Somber forest, sad and savage wilderness') demonstrated why her career is taking such a starry turn- she possesses a lush and creamy sound and makes each line of colorotura seem more effortless than the last. She received a number of ovations throughout the evening, and her voice combined beautifully with that of American tenor John Osborn, who played her Swiss love interest Arnold.

Osborn, like Byström, features on the Pappano recording, and proved extremely popular with the Proms audience. A true bel canto tenor with a sweet lyrical voice that's as clear as a bell, he brought real character to the role of Arnold despite the limited movement involved in this concert staging. In the final act of the opera he received a lot of foot stomping and cheering after his Ne m'abandonne point ('Forsake me not') which he filled with a great sense of foreboding and drama before progressing into soft lyrical loveliness.

With the oppressors overcome and Gessler dead, the opera drew to a close with an ensemble piece. Liberte, redescends des cieux! ('Liberty, descend again from heaven!') was performed by the entire cast with tremendous beauty, joy and power, producing a Proms worthy finale and a great avalanche of applause. William Tell was the perfect Proms opera- unusual enough in this original French version to attract those who want to hear something a little bit different but with enough well known rousing moments to create a wonderful atmosphere. In the hands of Pappano and Santa Cecilia, it took on an extremely special quality, and there is no doubt, given the number of times the Maestro was called back to the stage with raucous cheering, that this will prove to be one of the most memorable Proms of the 2011 season.