About this Recording
8.660363-66 - ROSSINI, G.: Guillaume Tell [Opera] (complete version) (Foster-Williams, Spyres, J. Howarth, Poznan Camerata Bach Choir, Virtuosi Brunensis, Fogliani)
English  German 

Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868)
Guillaume Tell

Opéra in Four Acts
Libretto by Victor Joseph Étienne de Jouy and Hippolyte Louis Florent Bis after Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell and Claris de Florian’s Guillaume Tell


Guillaume Tell, Suisse conjuré - Andrew Foster-Williams, Baritone
Arnold Melcthal, Suisse conjuré - Michael Spyres, Tenor
Walter Furst, Suisse conjuré / Melcthal, Père d’Arnold - Nahuel Di Pierro, Bass
Jemmy, Fils de Guillaume Tell - Tara Stafford, Soprano
Gesler, Gouverneur des cantons de Schwitz e d’Uri - Raffaele Facciolà, Bass
Rodolphe, Chef des archers de Gesler - Giulio Pelligra, Tenor
Ruodi, Pêcheur - Artavazd Sargsyan, Tenor
Leuthold, Berger / Un chasseur - Marco Filippo Romano, Bass
Mathilde, Princesse de la maison de Hapsbourg - Judith Howarth, Soprano
Hedwige, Femme de Guillaume Tell - Alessandra Volpe, Mezzo-soprano


Guillaume Tell, Suisse conjuré - Marco Filippo Romano, Bass
Arnold Melcthal, Suisse conjuré - Giulio Pelligra, Tenor
Walter Furst, Suisse conjuré / Gesler, Gouverneur des cantons de Schwitz e d’Uri - Raffaele Facciolà, Bass
Jemmy, Fils de Guillaume Tell - Tara Stafford, Soprano
Rodolphe, Chef des archers de Gesler - Artavazd Sargsyan, Tenor
Mathilde, Princesse de la maison de Hapsbourg - Diana Mian, Soprano
Hedwige, Femme de Guillaume Tell - Alessandra Volpe, Mezzo-soprano

The Myth of Rossini’s Silence

When Rossini seized on the subject of Guillaume Tell, it wasn’t simply a case of portraying a sort of “Swissness” but rather of representing the liberation of an oppressed people which had occurred a long time ago in an “exotic” land. It had been no different with his two earlier serious operas which he had written for the Paris Opéra: in Le Siège de Corinthe (1826) the Greeks liberate themselves from their Turkish conquerors through an act of mass suicide; in Moïse et Pharaon (1827) the Jews rescue themselves from the yoke of the Egyptians into the Promised Land. In Guillaume Tell (William Tell) the oppressed Swiss attain the ideal of emancipation as they hound the tyrannical Hapsburgs out of their country. In order to provide the opera with the requisite local colour the set designer Ciceri was despatched to Switzerland, where he produced a lot of sketches which helped him with his mise-en-scène. For his part Rossini studied a range of ranz-de-vaches (Swiss alpine herdsmen’s songs) which he worked deftly into his opera. Rossini himself had never seen central Switzerland, but only the mountain and lake cantons of Valais and Geneva, which had belonged to the Swiss Confederation since the Congress of Vienna in 1815. On his first journey to Paris Rossini wrote from Geneva on 4 November 1823: “We are here in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.” It was Rousseau who had co-founded the fashion for all things Swiss in art in his epistolary novel Julie oula nouvelle Héloïse, but whether it was Geneva, the city of Rousseau’s birth, which planted the seed in Rossini for a Swiss opera is pure speculation. But ever since his first experiences as an opera composer, thanks to Pietro Generalis’s Adelina (1810), Rossini knew how well the idyllic landscape could be combined with the world of feeling experienced by operatic figures.

Rossini might have been contemplating Guillaume Tell specifically at the end of 1826, the time mentioned by the poet Victor Joseph Étienne (known as Jouy, de Jouy or Étienne de Jouy) as the date of the first version of his libretto. Jouy not only took Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell of 1804 (in the French translation by Henry Merle d’Aubigné of 1818) as his template but also drew on the dense backdrop which French literature had woven into this topic, starting with Antoine-Marin Lemierre (1766). The libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine for Grétry’s opera (1791) served among others as the model for the wedding festivities in Rossini’s Tell, which are not to be found in Schiller. But above all it was Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1755–1794), whose impressive and superior literary prose accounts of the representation of nature and of numerous episodes (such as the archery contest, Tell’s genuflection before Gesler or the torching of the house as a signal of the uprising) and several verbatim passages and expressions, which were integral and just as important as Schiller. The ailing Jouy entrusted alterations that Rossini and circumstances demanded to his collaborator Hippolyte Louis Florent Bis. Bis also took into account the newest pieces put on by rival theatres, which were quick to present this subject before the Paris Opéra did: specifically the melodrama by Guilbert de Pixérécourt and the reworking of Grétry’s opera by Jean-Baptiste Pellissier.

It was in a letter in the middle of May 1828 that Rossini first mentioned his great French opera, but it was to be almost 18 months before the work actually reached the stage—very much longer than he had ever previously needed to put on an opera, which he often managed to write down in full and mount within a month.

Above all this had to do with the extremely complex system of productions which existed at the Paris Opéra, this grande boutique which not merely put an opera onto the stage, but produced a Gesamtkunstwerk that combined music with literature, dance and visual arts. In other words it was a system which required a text with literary standards, demanded ballets integral to the action, which called for naturalistic sets and historically accurate costumes and finally one which looked for new directions in staging, especially in moving large choral forces. Various committees were charged with trying out and improving the suggested solutions of each area of operations. The interaction of all the elements was put to the test in interminable rehearsals and sweeping changes were made which could not have been thought of at the drawing-board stage. So it was almost imperative that Rossini wrote more music than eventually was performed at the première. Further delays arose as a result of the pregnancy of the first Mathilde, Laure Cinti-Damoreau, for whom there was no suitable understudy. And finally the composer himself used his much-awaited score to obtain from the French government a suitably advantageous contract. He rejected the contract which had been signed by the king himself because the clauses did not contain the wording stipulated by Rossini. He took back the score from the copyists, who had already started to write out the orchestral parts, and demanded that the terms of his pension for life be redrafted precisely as he stipulated. Rossini did not release the score until Charles X had appended his signature to the correctly-worded version of the contract.

It is this event which is fundamental to understanding Rossini’s mysterious silence, a silence which is usually associated with his final opera. Biographers believed that criticisms and the subsequent cuts in Guillaume Tell had offended Rossini so much that he stopped composing. Musicologists contended that compositional flaws and internal contradictions in this opera showed Rossini’s creative limitations. Doctors unceremoniously shifted his medical reports of the 1840s and 1850s to the 1830s. It was legal historians who recently opened our eyes to the possibilities of other, more practical, considerations.

It was Rossini himself who, before he wrote it, let it be known, that Tell was to be his last opera. Like most working people Rossini and his family dreamed of early retirement. In 1827 Rossini’s father wrote from Paris to his brother-in-law in Pesaro: “Rossini has given me his word that next year he will accompany me to Italy and that from 1830 he wishes to stay entirely at home in order to enjoy his life and to let those write who want to, since he has slaved away enough.” But straightaway he expresses his reservations about this statement: “May heaven grant that he wants this from his heart, but I have my doubts, for Paris is a grand and beautiful place, and he is highly regarded and has influential friends.” On the other hand a review of 28 November 1828 by the well-informed Fétis in his widely-read La Revue Musicale clearly contains the whiff of a deliberately-spread indiscretion: “All indications are that Guillaume Tell is to be his final work; at any rate Rossini has declared his intention to snap his quill pen and to shut himself away in Bologna in order to savour there in peace his fame and his much-deserved wealth.” It was precisely at this period that Rossini was in negotiations with the French government about his new contract and the “threatened” retreat served only to enhance his market value. There is even an echo of this in the preface to his contract: “Monsieur Rossini, whose state of health and family interests appear to be so important to him as to warrant a return to his homeland of Italy, wishes to have the freedom to spend part of the year there […], yet he has certainly no intention of leaving France.” In this final contract, of 8 May 1829, Rossini committed himself to writing solely for the Académie Royale de Musique and to providing for this theatre at least five grand operas within a ten year period for a remuneration of 15,000 francs each, as from 1 January 1829, so Tell was the first of these.

Independently of the composition of these operas and of his place of domicile the contract awarded him a lifelong pension of 6,000 francs per annum—the point on which from the beginning Rossini placed the greatest value and an issue on which he even clashed with the king. The amount of 15,000 francs which Rossini brokered for a new opera acted as a strong argument for him not to rest on his laurels. On 4 May 1830 while staying in Bologna he wrote seven letters to influential figures in Paris in which he explicitly voiced his desire for the promised libretto. In the letters he also explained that he expected to be back in Paris by October. The poet who was in default because of other commissions was Eugène Scribe, and the selected subject was supposed to have been based on Goethe’s Faust.

Less than three months after these letters Charles X was swept off the throne by the July Revolution. One of the first drastic budget cuts carried out by the new regime, under Louis-Philippe, related to the civil list, in which category Rossini’s pension was entered. The composer felt compelled to set off for Paris in September 1830 in order to fight for his rights. Since Rossini was now in a legal dispute with the French regime, there was no more talk of the new opera and he was not permitted to write any for other theatres lest he commit a breach of contract. That is sufficient explanation for his withdrawal from musical theatre. The legal wrangle went on until 1835 and after so long a hiatus Rossini no longer saw any reason to pick up his pen again; he had long since learned how to deal with his newfound freedom as a composer in his retirement. So Guillaume Tell inadvertently became his own “rescue opera.”

On the versions of Guillaume Tell

Before the première. At an early stage Rossini wrote a skeleton score which consisted only of the vocal line and some individual instrumental figures. Some recitative passages, which were still imbued entirely with the style of the academic Jouy, and which held up the action without integrally enhancing its motivation and plausibility, were excised by Rossini even before he started work on the orchestration. During the stage and orchestral rehearsals a few numbers were cut for dramaturgical or time reasons: Melcthal’s and Gesler’s monologue after the march, recitative and chorus (No. 3); a first, somewhat longer version of the Tyrolean pas de trois and chorus (No. 15a); a final dance in the divertissement of act 3 (No. 16bis); Jemmy’s aria (No. 17-IIIbis) as well as the recitative and prayer of Hedwige and the chorus (No. 19a-I).

After the première. Owing to the reactions of the public and press, and with the consent of the authors further cuts were made, following the first, second and sixth performances. When Rossini set out for Bologna on 16 August he left behind a version of the score in which, compared with that of the première, the following numbers were cancelled: the pas de deux (No. 5bis); part of the dialogue in the second finale (No. 12a); parts of the recitative in which Tell refuses to bow before the hat (No. 17-Ia); the ladies’ trio in the fourth act (No. 18bis); in numbers 1, 3, 4, 6, 12, 14, 16 and 18 shorter, mostly purely instrumental passages were dropped; Mathilde’s scene and aria (No. 13) was thinned out in the orchestra and Arnold’s involvement was cut; Mathilde’s presence in the fourth act was dispensed with. The critical edition published by the Fondazione Rossini and Ricordi has declared this version as the basis of its edition and added all other numbers as supplements (which is mirrored in the numbering of the pieces) and which in the current recording of Rossini in Wildbad were incorporated into the originally-scheduled places.

The three-act version. In Paris it quickly became fashionable either to shorten opera performances or to present only individual acts and to put on in their place a self-contained ballet, with no relevance to the action, to follow the opera. Rossini was fully aware of this practice and on 4 May 1830 wrote to his librettist Bis: “How is our William? If there are still amputations to be made, I give you a free hand. See to it that the arrangements for our Switzerland are carried out in such a way that they are appropriate and in the best interests of the production and of the well-being of the performance.” His use of the word “amputations” makes it clear that it was by no means artistic considerations which motivated him to make such cuts, but simply his practical sense of the theatre. In 1831 Rossini and Bis began to prepare a three-act version of the opera. With our present-day artistic sensibilities it is scarcely conceivable that Rossini actually cut Tell’s aria before the famous apple-shooting scene and that he replaced the cosmic closing apotheosis with the trivial galop from the overture. But as Rossini remarked already in 1818: “I write for my glory, the rest is all the same to me.” He combined within himself two virtues which were indispensable to his success: genius and pragmatism—a comparison of the two Tell finales is the best proof of that.


CD 1

[1] Overture

Act 1
On the shores of Lake Lucerne.

[2] The Swiss rejoice at the beautiful day and go about their work. [3] The fisherman Ruodi wants to go out onto the lake with his beloved, while Hedwige and Jemmy are fearful of a sudden storm. Tell is consumed by dark thoughts, pondering on the fate of the subjugated Switzerland. [4] From the mountains the signal announcing the festivities is heard. Old Melcthal comes down from the mountain, accompanied by Arnold. Melcthal is to bless the three bridal couples. [5] In their songs the Swiss extol the virtues of work, marriage and love. [6] Tell invites Melcthal into his house. Melcthal reproaches his son Arnold for not thinking about getting married. Arnold acknowledges to himself his love for the Hapsburg princess Mathilde, knowing full well that her relationship with Gesler, the oppressor of Switzerland, will be an impediment. Arnold hears the sound of the tyrant’s horn as he passes by, and he wishes to see Mathilde once more. [7] But Tell confronts him. [8] Arnold is inwardly torn and is troubled by thoughts of having to renounce Mathilde. Nevertheless he decides to take the virtuous course. Tell hopes to have won him over to Switzerland’s cause. [9] The wedding celebrations get under way. Melcthal blesses the young people. [10] He reminds the young couples that the country’s future depends on them. Amidst the noise of Gesler’s hunt Arnold slips away unnoticed while Tell, outraged, calls on the women to banish their husbands from their marital beds, so that no more slaves will be born. Hedwige tries to get the party going again while Tell goes looking for Arnold. [11] The Swiss extol the god of weddings. [12] The three husbands and their wives arrange themselves into couples and dance a pas de six. [13] Then follows an archery competition which Jemmy wins. As they dance the Swiss celebrate the accuracy of their arrows which gives them hope for the future. [14] Suddenly a blood-smeared countryman hurries past. It is Leuthold, who has slain one of the provincial governor’s henchmen, in order to protect his daughter from rape. The opposite bank would be a safe place of refuge for him but the fisherman Ruodi refuses to undertake the dangerous crossing. As the pursuing soldiers draw near, Tell, who has just returned, decides to row Leuthold over the lake. [15] The Swiss pray for the pair, while the rampaging soldiers realize that the boat has passed the tricky point. Their ringleader Rodolphe demands to know the name of the man who helped Leuthold to escape. [16] Melcthal, who begs the Swiss to remain silent, is arrested and frog-marched away, while the soldiers threaten them with looting and drive the peasants back with their lances.

CD 2

Act 2
The Rütli Heights.

[1] The people of the court rejoice at the animals they have hunted. From afar the shepherds can be heard heralding the coming night. [2] Mathilde has taken herself away from the hunting party and thinks of the simple mountain-dweller Arnold whom she believes to be nearby. [3] She realizes that she loves him and that she prefers the wild solitude of the mountains and woods to the glitter of the court. [4] Arnold appears and apologizes for his impolite entrance. In spite of their mutual love Arnold doesn’t believe that they can bridge their social differences. He asks her to send him away, but she invites him to stay. [5] She confesses her love to him. [6] They both indulge in thoughts of love. She asks him to take up arms in order to win fame and so show himself to the court as worthy of her. Arnold is enthusiastic about the idea and they both indulge in renewed hope. [7] Mathilde and Arnold arrange a farewell meeting and separate quickly as they see Tell and Walter Furst approach. Arnold counters the accusation of a forbidden love with the futility of a life in Switzerland. [8] Tell replies sarcastically that he should feel free to fight for the tyrants and die. Walter informs him that Gesler has slain an old man. Arnold is shocked to discover that the old man is his father, whom he did not protect. Tell and Walter recognize that his guilty conscience is leading him back to the old virtues. Arnold wants to die or immediately to invade Altdorf in revenge. [9] They urge him to keep calm and divulge their plans to him: a secret meeting with noble-minded friends is called for. The three of them swear to avenge Melcthal and to fight for the independence of Switzerland. [10] Footsteps are heard deep in the forest; they belong to a contingent of men from Unterwalden who, in spite of its remoteness and the dangers they encountered en route, have reached the Rütli. A horn call summons Walter’s compatriots. [11] The men from Schwyz are particularly scarred by the pain of oppression. Tell explains that his men from Uri are late because of their having to negotiate a safe passage across the lake. [12] Finally the men from Uri canton arrive and Tell draws the attention of the assembled crowd to the reign of violence of which they must finally rid themselves. The men from Schwyz are paralysed at the prospect of war. Arnold, who until then has been standing apart, snaps out of his lethargy and demands vengeance for his father’s death. That he had to die for love of his homeland confers on all those present the courage and conviction to arm themselves in secret and to await the time for liberation. [13] They all swear to cast out the tyrants and to ostracize any possible traitors. The new day is heralded by a call to arms.

CD 3

Act 3
In an old chapel.

[1] Mathilde meets the now completely-changed Arnold at the appointed place. He explains to her that he intends to remain in his homeland and to avenge his father, to renounce fame and even her. Mathilde learns of Gesler’s murderous act and sees herself robbed of all her hopes. [2] From afar they both hear preparations for a military feast being made. Mathilde implores Arnold to steer clear of the dangerous Gesler. After renouncing their love for each other, they separate for ever.

The great square at Altdorf.
[3] At the start of the festivities the Swiss men and the soldiers pay homage to the sovereignty which the provincial governor wields in the name of the emperor. The Swiss women strike up a song of praise to Mathilde, in whom they recognize a caring monarch. Gesler demands that his subjects must bow to his hat on top of a pole. [4] A young lad and two girls from Tyrol are forced to present a dance. [5] The Swiss bid the strangers welcome and, singing, accompany them in a Tyrolean dance. [6] The soldiers force the Swiss women to dance with them; through their gestures the Swiss men impotently express their indignation. After their boisterous dancing the soldiers leave the dance floor. [7] The three Tyroleans return to the stage once more and dance with the Swiss. [8] A drum roll brings the dancing to an end and is a signal for the people to bow down before Gesler’s hat. Rodolphe notices that both Tell and his son Jemmy remain standing upright. Tell says to Gesler that he bows only to God. Rodolphe realizes that he has before him Guillaume Tell, who helped Leuthold to escape. Gesler has him arrested at once. [9]0 The soldiers are in awe of Tell, while Gesler and Rodolphe urge them not to spare the arrogant man. Tell tries to persuade Jemmy to return home but the young man wants to remain with his father. [10] In a low voice Tell orders his son to return home and to light the beacon which will trigger the revolt of the three cantons. Gesler stops the young man and orders Tell to shoot an apple from his son’s head. Tell is appalled but Jemmy encourages his father to have faith in his skill. [11] He believes that Heaven will assist his father; Tell rebukes Gesler for venting his fury on a child, but the death of a child by his father’s hand would be sweet to him. [12] Undeterred Jemmy allows the apple to be put on his head. Tell composes himself and slots an arrow into his crossbow. Unnoticed, he hides a second arrow inside his shirt. Jemmy comforts his father, at which Tell puts down his weapon. He beseeches his child to raise his eyes to heaven and not to move. Tell collects himself, shoots and hits the apple! [13] The people rejoice, Gesler rants and Jemmy is triumphant. Tell faints as a consequence of happiness and relief. Jemmy undoes Tell’s shirt and Gesler sees the second arrow fall to the ground. Tell admits that it was intended for Gesler, at which he has Tell immediately clapped in irons. Mathilde, having been called by her page, appears and confronts Gesler. She thwarts his plan to incarcerate father and son, while she places Jemmy under her protection, in the name of the emperor. At the very least Gesler intends to despatch Tell across the lake that same night and to imprison him in the fortress at Küsnacht. [14] The Swiss are enraged, Gesler and Rodolphe are determined to do anything, Jemmy entrusts himself to Mathilde and Tell hopes that at least his son will get away. At first the Swiss are intimidated by Gesler’s threatening gestures, but when Tell curses Gesler at the top of his voice the scene ends in uproar.

CD 4

Act 4
Old Melcthal’s house.

[1] Arnold craves for the moment in the fighting when he might avenge his father and free Tell. He stands in front of the hut in which he grew up. The emptiness which it gives off without his father there makes it impossible for him to go inside. [2] Then he hears his comrades passing by under the cries of battle. Arnold sends them to the cache of arms which Tell and his father have assembled. Arnold decides to kill Gesler. The Swiss confederates return armed and join in Arnold’s battle-cry to march on Altdorf.

A view towards the Axenberg on Lake Lucerne.
[3] The Swiss women try to dissuade Hedwige from confronting Gesler. Suddenly she hears the voice of Jemmy who is hurrying towards her. Mathilde has brought him back and intends also to obtain Tell’s freedom. [4] Mathilde believes that Hedwige’s suffering will be put to an end; Jemmy and Hedwige place their hopes in their protectress. [5] In horror Hedwige gets to know that Tell is to be transported across the stormy lake. Jemmy remembers his father’s instruction to light the beacon. As the storm breaks Hedwige, encouraged by Mathilde and the Swiss women, begs heaven to rescue Tell and for an end to their oppression. [6] Leuthold hurries by; he has noticed that Tell has taken over the steering of the boat and is heading for the shore. They all hurry to the lake as the boat is seen in the midst of the waves. Gesler and the soldiers place their last hope in Tell, their helmsman. He brings the boat to shore, jumps out and then violently sends the boat back into the rough waters. Tell can embrace Hedwige and Jemmy; meanwhile, for lack of a bonfire, Jemmy has torched his parents’ house, but not without first having saved his weapons which he hands over to his father. [7] Gesler and the soldiers were able to save themselves and follow Tell to the shore. Tell asks the people around him to step aside, draws his bow, aims at Gesler and pierces his chest with his arrow. Terrified, the soldiers flee. Tell’s family detects the hand of God in this deliverance. The Swiss confederates, led by Walter, come running and learn that Gesler is dead, while Arnold with his troops announces the fall of Altdorf. Arnold spots Mathilde in the crowd and she pledges herself to him and his people. Arnold laments the fact that his father has not lived to experience the general happiness. [8] As the storm abates and the sky brightens to reveal the sight of the majestic Alpine world the Swiss celebrate in song their regained freedom.

An andante [9] followed by an andante maestoso [10] precede the allegretto of the pas de deux [11] which was planned originally for a troubadour and his beloved as an extra interlude in the divertissement in Act 3.

[12] The original Tyrolean pas de trois with chorus is by and large musically identical to the final version (CD 3, [4]–[5]) but, because of the different arrangement and in some cases other instrumental episodes, is 71 bars longer in toto.

[13] The new finale for the three-act version (Paris 1831) comes after the ensemble Quand l’orgueil les égare (CD3, [14]). Rodolphe reports that the insurgents are mustering; Tell realizes that the liberation of Switzerland is under way. Hedwige appears, but her husband, who is calling for battle, is frog-marched away. The women pray, while there are scenes of chasing and battle between the Swiss and the occupying forces. Tell appears, together with Arnold and Walter. He brandishes his crossbow with which he has just killed Gesler. In the crowd Arnold spots Mathilde who will stay at his side forever. Arnold laments the fact that his father has not lived to experience the general happiness. In a triumphal chorus the Swiss people belt out to Melcthal and to heaven the words “Victory and freedom”.

Reto Müller
English translation by David Stevens

Close the window