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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Recordings Review: Polishing the Apple

Antonio Pappano's EMI William Tell
by Paul Pelkonen
Conductor Antonio Pappano in an apple endorsement. Image © 2011 EMI Classics.
Guillaume Tell is Rossini's last opera. Written in 1829, it is a sweeping, sophisticated work with a killer role for the tenor, a baritone part that doesn't get an aria, and a stirring overture that is the only part of the work that remains in the standard performing repertory.

Since this opera is rarely performed, the arrival of a new recording of Tell--let alone a live one is cause for surprise. Even better, this three-disc issue from EMI (released in 2011) was made at six concerts in Rome by Antonio Pappano, an experienced conductor in 19th century repertory. Mr. Pappano, working here with the Orchestra and Chorus of the National Academy of St. Cecilia, (which he has led for the past five years) presents an invigorating account that may do much to restore the reputation of this opera as a vast, sweeping work that, despite dramatic flaws, contains some of Rossini's finest music in its four acts. 

It is to Mr. Pappano's credit that, despite the Italian audience and a Roman orchestra, he chose to record Tell in French, using the original text. This restores flow to Rossini's arias and recitatives. Starting with that famous overture, he lends the opera a vitality that makes the plight of Swiss peasants under the Austrian boot entirely relevant to the modern age.

Starting with the overture, Tell is a marathon: four acts of beautiful music that takes a whole act to get moving and ends in anticlimax. You know the Austrians will be defeated. You know Tell will shoot the apple. And you know he'll become a national hero. As a result, the title role has almost no character development, and doesn't even get an aria. 

Gerald Finley overcomes all of this, singing the fatherly Tell with a smooth vocal line and bringing much-needed color to what is essentially a stock heroic role. The serious weight of this character is audible from his Act I entrance in the ensemble. The Act III "Sois immobile", ("Stay still") his warning to his son Jemmy before the famous apple-shooting, is the best part of his performance.

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More interesting is tenor John Osborn in the near-impossible role of Arnold. This is one of the toughest heroic tenor parts in opera, requiring a flexible instrument that can range freely above the stave and hit 19 high Cs and two C sharps. Mr. Osborn hits all of these extreme notes with firm, ringing tone and stamina for the Act IV "Amis, amis." 

He is well matched with Malin Byckström, the Swedish soprano who made a splash at the Met this year singing in the second cast of Faust. Ms. Byckström sings Mathilde's challenging music with good French diction and a sweet voice that has the occasional rough moment. That's worth it though, as her duets with Mr. Osborn make one wish that Rossini wrote more operas.

In choosing to set the opera in concert, Mr. Pappano eliminates the need for woodland sets and problematic special effects. Instead, he relies on the superb players of the St. Cecilia orchestra, and strong performances from the chorus to represent the oppressed Swiss people. The choristers are particularly effective in the climax of Act II, in which three choral ensembles represent different cantons (regions) of Switzerland in preparation for war. In this performance, one can hear the influence of Rossini's last opera on the early operas of Giuseppe Verdi.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.