Saturday 25 April 2015

Guillaume Tell - more than complete

Guillaume Tell - Naxos
Rossini Guillaume Tell; Michael Spyres, Judith Howarth, Andrew Foster-Williams, Virtuosi Brunensis, Antonino Fogliani; Naxos
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 13 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Striking new live version of Rossini's last opera, in its most complete format

I have long been looking for a recording of Rossini's Guillaume Tell to set beside the classic one from Lamberto Gardelli with Nicolai Gedda and Montserrat Caballe. I don't have huge requirements but it has to be in decent French, and be reasonably complete. The first requirement rules out a few and the second rules out the recent recording from Antonio Pappano with John Osborn and Malin Bystrom, because it uses the shortest and most unsatisfactory of Rossini's versions.

This new recording on Naxos, was made live at the Rossini in Wildbad Festival. It contains the first recording of the complete opera (quite what complete means I will come to later), in French with Andrew Foster-Williams in the title role, Michael Spyres as Arnold, Judith Howarth as Mathilde, Tara Stafford as Jemmy, Alessandra Volpe as Hedwige, plus Nahuel di Pierro, Raffaele Facciola, Giulio Pelligra, Artavazd Sargsyan, Marco Filippo Romano, with Camerata Bach Choir Poznan and Virtuosi Brunensis conducted by Antonino Fogliani.

When Rossini planned Guillaume Tell it was to prove rather expansive, so after he had written the skeleton score but before fleshing out he cut a few items. A few numbers were cut during rehearsals, and then after the premiere cuts were made and further cut were made after subsequent performances so that when Rossini left for Bologna we have the most compressed four-act version (the one recorded by Pappano). Rossini was a man of the theatre, he made the trimming because he wanted to be in charge of it and in the theatre this version (or one based on it with extra items) is understandable given the length of the piece and the stamina required. But on CD we need something closer to what Rossini intended.

On this new disc we get the work as close as possible to that originally conceived by Rossini, with items cut during rehearsals restored as well. There is also an appendix, with different versions of the items. The opera is spread out sensibly over four discs with one for each act (something which Naxos's pricing makes affordable).
The cast has a strong group of Rossini specialists in the three main roles, Andrew Foster-Williams as Guillaume, Michael Spyres as Arnold and Judith Howarth as Mathilde. Michael Spyres is proving tireless in the early 19th century French repertoire, turning in a strong performance in the title role of Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini with ENO (see my review). Andrew Foster-Williams was an impressive pharaoh in Rossini's Mose in Egitto with WNO (see my review). I can remember Judith Howarth's impressive account of Marguerite de Valois in John Dew's much disliked production of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots in 1991, I have encountered her since though not as often as I would have liked and was pleased to hear her Maria Stuarda in Harry Fehr's rather clumsy production of Donizetti's opera for WNO (see my review). To these performers, the recording adds a talented group of young professionals to create a strong ensemble.

The set was recorded live at four performances, and this needs bearing in mind. There is a lot of stage noise and sometimes the performers lose focus because of the liveliness of the production. The recording is taken from complete staged performances of the longest and most taxing version of one of the longest and taxing of early 19th century operas. Despite this, Michael Spyres sounds tireless and his account of Asile hereditaire sounds almost as fresh as the opening. His is a richly vibrant performance, perhaps rather more robust than Nicolai Gedda, but it is still stylish and engrossing.

Judith Howarth is equally as vibrant as Mathilde, with a more distinctive vibrato than Caballe, but then few sopranos were able to achieve her combination of power and purity. And Mathilde needs power, as well as agility, a combination which makes the role a bit of a killer even though it is not specially long. Judith Howarth gives a lovely account of Sombre foret and throughout the work she impresses with the way she has the agility still, and the power. She also has a nicely vibrant relationship with Michael Spyres, which really tells. And it needs to, because they get so little stage time together.

The final one of the trio is Andrew Foster-Williams. This is a role which counts not because of the arias, though the aria during the cross-bow/apple scene is fine. But the essence of role is the recitative, and it is here that Andrew Foster-Williams impresses with his beautiful flexible line and highly believable impact. Though it has to be admitted that this is a musical performance rather than an heroic one and Michael Spyres' Arnold seems at times rather more heroically robust than Andrew Foster-Williams, particularly in the ensembles. This is not something that worries me, but reading other reviews it clearly does worry other people.

The unusual thing about Rossini's serious operas, notably the ones for Naples and Guillaume Tell, is that though Rossini write virtuoso roles for his soloists with show-piece moments, the core of the work comes from their dialogues and ensembles. Rossini's serious operas have relatively few arias, and create their effect from the way everyone interacts. The fact that this is a stage performance helps enormously here, the key soloists and all the others combine to create a highly vivid drama. And conductor Antonino Fogliani helps with the way he keeps things moving and allows the recitative to flow.  If the work got too statuesque then the sheer length would be unbearable.

Around the three key soloists, the other performers are not on the level that they might have been on a lavish studio recording. Individual voices might not quite appeal but they all give vibrant performances and make a keen ensemble. Tara Stafford as Jemmy benefits from this version as she gets to perform Jemmy's aria during act three (the cross-bow/apple scene) and she does so in a style which makes her sound very French (think Mady Mesple). Alessandra Volpe makes a nicely poised, if trifle plummy Hedwige and she gets all the material in the last act which was some of the first to go. Artavazd Sargsyan is not quite as lyrically relaxed as I would like in Ruodi's solo in Act 1, but Nahuel Di Pierro contributes a robust Walter Furst (as well as Melcthal in Act 1) and is part of the terrific closing scenes in Act 2 with the chorus giving a stirring account of Rossini's superb score.

Throughout the orchestra is in strong form too, ably guided by Antonino Fogliani and we have to bear in mind that the length of the piece is as much as marathon for them.

The final disc includes 24 minutes of alternative versions. These are mainly ballet music for Act 1 and Act 3, but it also includes a fascinating re-write of the opera's finale made for the three act version in Paris in 1831.

Thanks to the version used, this will be essential listening for anyone who is interested in this fascinating opera, but more than that it is a finely engrossing account of the opera in its own right. Recorded live, it lacks the surface polish of a studio recording but instead with get a robustly theatrical elan. For me the combination of the edition and the performances from Spyres, Howarth and Foster-Williams win over the imperfections, but not everyone agrees. To give you a taste, a number of excerpts from the stage version are available online at YouTube (here and here) and I have embedded the cross bow/apple scene below. There is also a version on DVD though judging from the extracts the production may not be to everyone's taste.

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) - Guillaume Tell
Guillaume - Andrew Foster-Williams (baritone)
Arnold - Michael Spyres (tenor)
Walter Furst - Nahuel Di Pierro (bass)
Melcthal - Nahuel Di Pierro (bass)
Jemmy - Tara Stafford (soprano)
Gessler - Raffale Facciola (bass)
Rodolphe - Giulio Pelligra (tenor)
Ruodi - Artavazd Sargasyan (tenor)
Leuthold & un chasseur - Marco Filippo Romano (bass)
Mathilde - Judith Howarth (soprano)
Hedwige - Alessandra Volpe (mezzo-soprano)
Camerata Bach Choir, Poznan
Virtuosi Brunensis
Antonino Fogliani (conductor)
Recorded live at the Trinkhalle, Bad Wildbad, Germany, 13,16,18 and 21 July 2013
NAXOS 8.660363-66 4 CD's [74:59, 55:10, 64:51, 58:01]

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