Rossini: Guillaume Tell / Luisi, Hampson, Sabbatini, Et Al

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Any live performance of this, Rossini's last opera, is an occasion. Its grand scale, complex plot, and emotional depths on both personal and political levels, its odd mixture of the heroic and pastoral, stunning orchestration, and almost outrageously difficult vocal line for tenor unite to make it a thorny production to pull off properly. Great singers are called for; great ensemble is as necessary.

This 1998 production from the Vienna State Opera, with about 35 minutes of music cut (mostly repeats in ensembles, cabalettas, etc., still leaving us with more than three hours of music), is a splendid affair. Perhaps it's not as ideal as two commercially recorded readings (one in French, as is this one, with Caballé, Bacquier, and Gedda on EMI from 1973; the other, in Italian, with Freni, Milnes, and Pavarotti on Decca, recorded in '78 and '79), but it's a good show all the same.

We know we're in good hands from the overture--conductor Fabio Luisi takes this famous 12 minutes of music through its four separate parts, from the tranquil cello solos, through the storm and pastoral scene, and onto the famous wild ride, and he brings fresh energy and not a moment of cliché to it. The Staatsoper Orchestra plays it with verve and great respect, as it does the remainder of the long score. Kudos also to the chorus, who have plenty to do in this opera and do it with real heart.

The casting of the major roles is impressive. Thomas Hampson is the best Tell I've heard--sympathetic, clearly not a born leader but a man who rises to the occasion, a man who loves family and country. He occasionally overuses his slightly-too-light voice, but he is thoroughly "in" the character. Giuseppe Sabbatini manages Arnold's ridiculously high tessitura with apparent ease, getting all the high B-flats, Bs, and Cs (and the two C-sharps) with something akin to grace--quite a feat. He sounds tired by the very end of his last-act scena, but who wouldn't? Sabbatini also pays great attention to the text and to Arnold's predicament. It's a fine performance.

The Mathilde of Nancy Gustafson is guilty of smudged runs in what minimal coloratura her role contains, but her singing is solid if somewhat detached. A nice, light tenor named Mathias Zachariassen sings Ruodi's sweet song in Act 1 well, and Wojtek Smilek's Walter is powerfully put across. The other men are boring and sound bored; the women's roles--Jemmy and Hedwige--are well taken.

And so we have a good and highly dramatic "Tell" here, but it must take third place among the recorded choices. The other two are complete--surely a plus for home listening, too.

--Robert Levine,

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: ORF-C640053

  • UPC: 4011790640327

  • Label: Orfeo

  • Composer: Gioachino Rossini

  • Conductor: Fabio Luisi

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna State Opera Orchestra

  • Performer: Dawn Kotoski, Egils Silins, Giuseppe Sabbatini, Johannes Gisser, John Dickie, Mathias Zachariassen, Mihaela Ungureanu, Nancy Gustafson, Thomas Hampson, Walter Fink, Wotjek Smilek, Yu Chen