Major Operas | Guillaume Tell by Gioachino Rossini | Early Romantic
Rossini called the first performance of his grand opéra Guillaume Tell a ‘quasi-fiasco’. The overture, he said, was fine, the first act had some interesting effects, and the second was a triumph, but the third and fourth were disappointing.
However, the theatre director was more concerned with audience reaction at the Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique in Paris, where the premiere took place on 3 August 1829; the reception had been distinctly cool. As a result, he told Rossini, he was going to cancel his contract for future works. Rossini, unfazed, offered to withdraw the contract himself, adding that he would never write another opera. He kept his word.
In time, though, Guillaume Tell came to be appreciated for the colour and variety of its music and its brilliant special effects, such as the thunderstorm in the overture. However, the opera was immensely long, spreading its four acts over three hours and 45 minutes. Soon after the first performance, the theatre management began performing it one act at a time. Even this did not solve the problem, as Rossini was well aware. On being told that the second act was to be performed, he remarked, sardonically: ‘What, the whole of it?’
As the villagers on the shores of Lake Lucerne celebrate the impending marriage celebrations, Guillaume Tell laments the rule of Gesler, an Austrian oppressor. The respected patriarch Melchthal advises his son Arnold to marry, but the youth is in love with Gesler’s daughter Mathilde. The sound of horns signal that Gesler’s hunt is near and Arnold prepares to meet Mathilde. Guillaume Tell tries to recruit him to his patriotic cause and Arnold agrees, but he is torn between loyalty to his country and love for Mathilde.
Melchthal blesses the wedding couples and the festivities continue, with Tell’s son Jemmy winning an archery contest. The celebrations are interrupted by the arrival of Leuthold, a shepherd. He announces that he has killed an Austrian soldier, who was attempting to rape his daughter. Tell ferries him to safety across the lake, much to the anger of the Austrian soldiers. Gesler’s henchman Rodolphe demands to know the identity of the rescuer but the villagers remain silent in their loyalty towards Tell. Infuriated, Rodolphe takes Melchthal hostage.
Mathilde is contemplating her love for Arnold when he appears and the couple sing a duet. Mathilde hears Guillaume Tell and Walter approaching and leaves, promising to meet Arnold the next day. Tell and Walter break the news to Arnold that Melchthal has been murdered. Arnold swears vengeance, allying himself to Tell’s cause. Foresters join them and together the Swiss revolutionaries, with Tell as their leader, plan to overthrow the tyrannical Austrian rule.
Arnold and Mathilde rendezvous in a ruined chapel. Arnold explains about the death of his father and the plans for...
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