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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

DVD Review: The Swiss Miss

Guglielmo Tell filmed at La Scala.

by Paul Pelkonen
Is this the DisneyWorld ride "Soarin'"? No, it's Gugliemo Tell from La Scala
As of this writing, this is the only DVD performance available of Rossini's final opera.  Tell is better known for its overture than the work itself, which was one of the most important grand operas of the 19th century and the final stage work by Giacchino Rossini. This is a magnificent score, with Rossini at the height of his powers, presented here by an excellent conductor with absolute respect for the composer's written notes. The results are entirely mixed.

To start with, it's in Italian. Rossini intended for his opera to be sung in French, and while the transliteration from Guillaume to Guglielmo is an acceptable one, the opera works better in its original language. (Compare it to this superb French recording conducted by Lamberto Gardelli and then let me know what you think.) The three leads are acceptable, but not great. (For "great", pick up the Chailly recording with Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé in the lead roles.)

Chris Merritt's high-range tenor passes the vocal torture test that is the part of Arnold. He has a slight metallic bite to his voice, but he shines in the big Act II duet. Cheryl Studer, then in her brief prime, sings well as Mathilde but lacks emotional warmth. Giorgio Zancanarai is a solid Tell, tender and militant at the same time. In the treacherous "Resta immobile" Zancanari slips easily into the high tessitura and does not miss a single note.

The team of director Luca Ronconi and designer Gianni Quaranta opted to place the action in front of huge projection-screen televisions, that are used to place the actors against lakes, rivers, forests and even a huge medieval church. However, this method serves to neutralize the acting space. Singers are confined to wooden pews in the opening scene. An enormous tree rises out of the stage in Act II, unfolding like Fafner the dragon. The church scene looks like Cheryl Studer and Chris Merritt are warbling in a movie theater. The finale jumps the shark completely, when the Swiss scenery is replaced by shots of conductor Riccardo Muti toiling in the orchestra pit. We waited four hours, just to look at the conductor?

With its killer tenor role, long part for soprano and heroic baritone lead, the story of the legendary Swiss revolutionary leader is almost impossible to put on the stage today. And as this DVD shows, it was damn near impossible twenty years ago. Singers who can handle Arnold's Act IV cabaletta are few and far between. Mathilde isn't an easy sing either. It's a miracle that we have any performances of this opera at all, so this La Scala production (filmed in 1988) despite its flaws, will have to do.

Don't believe me? Watch the finale here.

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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.