It’s possible that I’d fall in love with any opera performance that included complimentary tiramisu, cannoli and coffee at the first intermission; crisp apples and more coffee at the second.
But Rossini’s “William Tell,” presented in concert form in Italian (with English supertitles) and at almost four-hour length at Chicago’s Harris Theater last Wednesday, Dec. 3, needed no such lures to make it palatable.
Yes, I loved the sweets, the caffeine and the allusive apples (some cleverly pierced with little fake arrows) – all provided by local restaurants and businesses – but what sticks with me a week after the opera (besides the calories), is the sublime music and the equally sublime and exhilarating musicianship of the orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Regio Torino and the incredible cast of guest soloists.
That’s what will probably resonate with the Ann Arbor audience after Tuesday’s Hill Auditorium performance (Dec. 9) – one of just four (including New York and Toronto) the Turin singers and players are offering on their North American tour under conductor Gianandrea Noseda.
It’s hard not to be familiar with the “William Tell Overture” if you have a heartbeat and have been on the planet for more than few minutes. That’s truer of the overture’s rousing ending (think “Lone Ranger”) than its soulful cello opening, depicting the dawn, or its lyrical Alpine central section. But it was all thrilling – and painterly – as played by the Turin orchestra under Noseda: After the rumble of the incoming storm in the timpani, you could hear the serenity of the Alpine landscape; and if there was an appropriately-Swiss clockwork-precision to the March of the Swiss Soldiers that ends the overture, there was also Italian passion and speed and dynamic shifts worthy of Maserati (a sponsor of the tour) in this grand cavalry charge. We were primed – and stoked — for what would follow. And we were not disappointed.
What follows is the story of a people – the Swiss – intent on freeing themselves from Austrian oppressors, led by the great folk hero and uber-archer William Tell. He’s the title character and a baritone (Luca Salsi), but he’s not the love interest. That falls to the tenor (naturally), one Arnold Melcthal (John Osborn), a Swiss who has worked under the Austrians (but becomes a patriot when he learns they’ve executed his father) and who’s had the misfortune of falling for one of the enemy, the Hapsburg Princess Mathilde (soprano Angela Meade).
If you think bubbles and comedy when you think Rossini – “Barber of Seville,” say, or “Cenerentola,” this is something altogether different. This final opera of Rossini’s career, premiered in 1829 in Paris and put into Italian a few years later, is grand and intense. If it is filled with Rossinian melodic loveliness and beautiful interludes for the chorus, representing the people at play as well as at war, it is also fleshed out with Verdian heft. The drama is gripping, the tale and the music heroic. Occasionally, it’s the writing is heartbreaking, as when Salsi, a remarkable Tell, sings his one big, gut-wrenching aria before he must shoot that famous apple from his son’s head. The music is also virtuosic, requiring great stamina from its performers over the opera’s nearly four-hour course.
So I was riveted – despite a Manhattan with dinner that could have spelled s-n-o-o-z-e – from overture to grand finale, when liberty triumphs and heroes and lovers and the Swiss people rejoice. (It’s a moving scene, and it’s one in which the libretto reminds me of the finale of “Cenerentola.” In that opera, Cinderella recounts in her big aria how suddenly everything changed for her (“Come un baleno rapido, La sorte mia cangio”); here there is similar miraculous transformation, magically orchestrated and announced with a “Tutto, tutto cambia,” as nature and liberty flourish in a sort of apotheosis.)
I can’t recall hearing better, more vivid choral singing – ever. The Turin singers, under Chorus Master Claudio Fenoglio, seem one voice, and the singing was gloriously 3-D, astonishing in its projection and character. The men were outstanding in Act II as the approaching forces from the Swiss cantons; the women seriously wonderful in Act III as mountain girls singing a cappella between orchestral dance interludes.
You didn’t need staging to hear the dance in that music. Noseda, a graceful and vigorous presence on the podium, was an embodiment of the dance, curtsies and bows included; his choreography was designed not so much to show the music but to show the musicians, who responded like dancers themselves. It was hard not to smile at the grace of it all.
You sometimes did wish for a little staging – or a bit more acting – from the soloists, arrayed to either side of Noseda and exiting and entering as called for. But mostly they let us keep our ear on the music, and that was more than fine.
I know Meade has sung Matilde staged, but her acting here was a little unfocused. Not so her singing; hers is a huge voice, but she can sure float a pure high note and run a roulade with the best of them. In Chicago, some of her coluratura in more rapid spots was a little pressed; it seemed like hard work, but that may have been an anomaly. Osborn was heroic and ringing in the taxing role of Arnoldo; and Salsi, as Tell, had the stature and command, vocally and dramatically, to fill the big shoes the role demands. His was a memorable performance. Among the other soloists, all excellent, Marco Spotti stood out for the sturdy bass he brought to the role of the Swiss freedom fighter Gualtiero Farst.
Altogether, this “William Tell” was a win not just for the Swiss, but for the soloists, this Italian company led by Noseda and not least of all, for the audience. I’ll be thinking about it – and maybe the tiramisu? – for a while to come.