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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 © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Opera Review: Taking the Apple

Opera company bows at Carnegie Hall with Gugliemo Tell
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Revolutionary conductor Gianandrea Noseda brought William Tell
to Carnegie Hall on Dec. 7.
Presenting William Tell, the four-act grand opera that prematurely ended the compositional career of Gioachino Rossini in 1829 is no easy task. The opera is huge, with four epic acts that try an audience's patience even when conductors make judicious (and sometimes deep) cuts. The opera marks an important transition between Italian bel canto and the grand opera of the French stage. Its libretto recounts the feats of the title character and his role as a farmer turned crossbow-wielding revolutionary and Swiss folk hero. For an opera company making both its Carnegie Hall and New York debuts, Tell is an unlikely choice.

However, the Teatro Regio Torino did just that on Sunday afternoon, hitting the bulls-eye with a sweeping and impressive performance that may do much to help this work's reputation. Under the taut leadership of music director Gianandrea Noseda, this performance (presented in its Italian version as Gugliemo Tell) also featured a strong cast. This was an important performance, not just for the repertory of the orchestra and chorus from Turin, Italy, but for the opera itself, a work that presents technical challenges for singers and an endurance test for all involved.

From the opening bars of the famous four-part Overture (the only part of this score well known to American listeners) Mr. Noseda showed his cards, spurring his players forward  a fiery performance that captured the revolutionary spirit of the Schiller play that was the basis of this opera. Played a little faster than usual, the overture anticipated the contrast and eventual conflict  between the nasty, brutish Austrians and the peace-loving but gutsy Swiss, transcending the pop-culture cliches that dog this famous curtain-raiser.

Baritone Luca Salsi, a late substitution for this tour, proved a compelling presence in the title role.  Tell can be a dull figure (he's good at everything: archery, boat-rowing, leading revolutionary Swiss farmers in overthrowing their enemies--you name it) but he's a father first and foremost. This was readily apparent in the hero's great address to his son Jemmy (Marina Bucciarelli) right before the famous feat of shooting an apple off of Jemmy's head. Mr. Salsi played Tell on the verge of tears, a man who'd finally been pushed too far.

Tenor John Osborne did pretty well in the brutal role of Arnold, nailing his big Act II duet with Ms. Meade and creating a convincing portrayal of the callow soldier who finally joins Tell's revolutionary cause. His scena with Tell and Gualtiero (Marco Spotti) was deeply felt and emotionally sung, as moments such as when Arnold learns of the death of his father were played with maximum emotional weight. Indeed, this entire act (which opens with the lovers' ardor and closes with a call to arms) is one of Rossini's greatest musical achievements, and Mr. Noseda drove the action with brisk efficiency.

Mr. Osborne showed his full capability in the cavatina that opens the fourth act, singing with stunning beauty and courage. Encouraged by the roaring approval of the house and a shout of encouragement from the box seats in Carnegie Hall, Mr. Osborne then tackled the murderous cabaletta that followed with less than pleasing results. Fighting against a loud orchestra and chorus of Swiss warriors, he seemed to run out of breath and voice in the cruel series  of high Fs that Rossini wrote for singers of a different age. He's not the first singer to fall short in this most difficult and challenging music.

Angela Meade remains a formidable talent, sweeping onstage at the start of Act II with a regal presence. Her singing was queenly as well. "Selva opaca" was delivered with jaw-dropping technique and a plush, forte tone that was tinged with generous vibrato. She was taut and intense in her tryst with Mr. Osborne, as the two joined forces in unison fioratura lines, a bel canto trademark. She was absolutely dominant in the third and fourth acts, making Mathilde more than a cardboard figure but a young woman who walks a difficult path between her Austrian forefathers and the oppressed Swiss. She even sliced through the massive ensemble and chorus in the ranz de vache finale, adding something unique to every scene she was in.

Teatro Regio di Torino boasted a strong cast of singers, most of the unknown on the stages of New York. Mr. Spotti was a firm, gruff presence as Gualtiero, Tell and Arnold's partner in revolutionary fervor. Gabriele Sagona was appropriately odious in the thankless role of Gessler, the opera's villain. . His part suffered from Mr. Noseda's editorial pen. Mezzo Anna Maria Chiuri sang a particularly beautiful aria and trio in the middle of the fourth act. Edwige, Tell's good-hearted wife. Ms. Bucciarelli shone in the Act III apple scene, with her character's life at stake. The chorus and orchestra played to the high standard that one would expect from this conductor, relishing the myriad beauties of the score but also maintaining pace and emotional drive from start to blazing finish.

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