Thursday, September 6, 2012

Rossini’s Farewell, William Tell

Many people, not knowing “exactly” the circumstances, still marvel that Gioacchino Rossini retired from the opera (not from music) in 1829 at the age of thirty-seven. There were rumors in the world press and especially in Paris during the completion of his penultimate opera, Le Comte D’Ory, that his next opera, Guillaume Tell would be his last.
To understand this decision you must first realize the staggering feat of musical creativity that had characterized Rossini’s life. His father rightly defended him explaining “He has worked his whole life.” This was no passing remark or simple excuse of a proud and grateful father for his greatly gifted son. Not only had Rossini taken upon himself the support of his immediate family and his wife Isabelle, but had worked professionally since about the age of sixteen. When we speak of even the greatest composer’s we refer to the masterpiece of this or that year, or early late and middle period styles. In Rossini’s furious industry, all of this blurs into an almost incomprehensible fever of sustained work. The list of operas (dating from 1808-1829) alone runs to almost forty works, he wrote masterworks not by the year, but by the season. In 1819 alone he wrote Ermione in March, Eduardo e Cristina in April, La Donna del Lago in September and Bianca e Falliero in December.
By 1828-29 Rossini had entered into a contract not with an agent or an opera house but with the French government; the contract for his lifetime annuity signed by Charles X himself. It was under these conditions that he commenced his final and monumental Tell, which Berlioz pronounced “sublime “. The plot deals with an amalgam of Swiss history, legend and the play by Schiller. It required five librettist including Rossini himself to arrive at the text he required. It deals with at first a romance between Mathilde and Arnold. She is an Austrian Princess, he a Swiss soldier intent on glory to win her hand. But, Switzerland is occupied by Austria and by degrees patriotism, friendship and personal honor will eclipse the usual loyalties of romantic love, family, community and armies.  At the center of this drama is the Swiss hero William Tell who rallies them all by example and by the opera’s finale even Mathilde will side with the Swiss rebels. Musically it is the summation of all Rossini learned in his career despite the epic scale (it runs to four hours) Guillaume Tell is a controlled and measured work. Ensembles, arias, choruses, orchestral writing, pastoral settings, nature evocation the conflicts of lovers, rivals, nations and armies are organically molded into a vast totality that never collapses of its’ own weight. Like the great overture many of its’ arias continue live on their own: 
Sombre foret , desert triste et sauvage ,
Je vous prefere aux splendeurs des palais
Brooding forest, moorland spaces,
How great the pleasures you inspire!
To yonder heights where the storm –wind races,
Calmly my heart will confess its desire
William Tell is a fitting close to an illustrious career and worthy proof of a well deserved rest.
Tune in to this Saturday Afternoon at the Opera presentation of one of the monuments of romantic opera in the rarely heard complete version, four acts in French. The cast includes Caballe, Mesple, Bacquier and Gedda . That’s Guillaume Tell, here at noon, on KPAC and KTXI.   
by Ron Moore

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