For a moment I wondered whether to take my blanket and pillow to Carnegie Hall on Sunday evening for the Opera Orchestra of New York presentation of a concert version of "William Tell" by Gioacchino Rossini. "Tell" can be a long go, as versions exist in three, four, and five acts, at the corresponding number of hours.
Like Verdi's "Don Carlo" and Berlioz's "Les Troyens," "Tell" was written - in French - to the specifications of the Paris Opera. It thus includes a ballet placed approximately in the middle of the evening, meant to increase its entertainment value (Wagner even included castanets in his Paris "Tannhauser").
New York legend Eve Queler dealt with this prodigious length by making several adroit cuts in the score. This was a reading with no sets or costumes, so the ballet would have been out of place and unstageable (the orchestra took up almost all of the valuable real estate). Ms. Queler also jettisoned the extensive recitative, a judicious excision but one that created some jarring of sensibilities when radical key changes were left exposed.
She did, however, manage to get us out of there in less than four hours. It would have been even quicker had not Ms. Queler insisted on such a high quality of performance; several long ovations interrupted the flow of the evening.
The opera is unique in that love of country triumphs over love between man and woman - it is the anti-"Romeo and Juliet." The famous over ture is really the archetype of the Lisztian symphonic poem, with no fewer than three distinct sections - the storm, the dawn, and the gallop - well known even in the world beyond our classical borders, although perhaps not always identified as part of a Rossini opera. For better or worse, a performance of this multifaceted tapestry is significantly colored by the realization of its overture.
Here the orchestra sounded especially pleasing, although the conductor seemed to be going for a version devoid of dramatic effect. The excellent brass, a motive for the entire night, was kept too quiet for my taste. Considering what a solid night the horn section had, including spectral calls from the Carnegie rafters during the ranz des vaches, it was frustrating to hear it so muffled for the overture. Additionally, tempos were oddly homogenous, mirroring the performance as a whole. But you could argue that the beauty of the work was emphasized over its tension.
Vocally, the memorable, and extremely difficult, role is not baritone William Tell at all but rather the tenor Arnold. Not only is there a lot to do, but two famous notes define the parameters of the part. The phrase "Trompons l'esperance homicide, arrachons," which ends on a sustained high C, was a specialty of Paris tenor Gilbert-Louis Duprez, although Rossini described his intonation as "like the squawk of a capon whose throat is being cut." In the duet "Oui, vous l'arrachez a mon ame," there is a passing note even a half-step higher, a moment that Duprez simply omitted from his performance.
Marcello Giordani starred as Arnold and did not disappoint. He adopted a very French style of singing, employing a nasal voce di testa throughout his performance. This allowed him to hit his interspersed high notes on a regular basis without resorting to falsetto, but limited his vocal characterization to a monochromatic, unvarying sense of color.
Marco Chingari was an able Tell, but suffered somewhat from audibility problems when the orchestra played loudly. This is always a concern during a concert version, as the instrumentalists are directly in back of the singers rather than in a pit. Sometimes Mr. Chingari simply seemed overmatched, but bass Philip Cokorinos was excellent as Walter.
The best voice of the night belonged to veteran basso Malcolm Smith as Arnold's father, Melchtal. Others were less polished and attractive, including the rather pedestrian Mathilde of Angela Maria Blasi, who simply never moved me. Heather Johnson as Hedwige was shrill in spots, but Ellie Dehn was sweet in the trouser role of the son Jemmy (you know, the apple on the head and all).
But the shining light of the evening was, as usual, Ms. Queler herself. New York is so fortunate to have three major conductors, the others being Vincent La Selva and Leon Botstein, who tirelessly unearth great gems that are hardly ever performed any longer.
Maestra Queler has been excelling at this musical archaeology for so long that some of her discoveries have entered the standard repertoire at the Metropolitan, for example the Czech-language version of Jenufa. I still cherish her recording from the early 1970s of Massenet's "Le Cid" with a young Placido Domingo and the great Grace Bumbry.
One more question about "William Tell." Since all of the bad guys are Austrian, is it ever performed at the Vienna Opera?