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If there is a focal point in the abundance of work by the composer Rossini – thirty eight operas in barely twenty years – it is surely Guillaume Tell. Thanks to its harmonious balance between recitatives, arias and choral parts, the musical inventiveness, the rich orchestration, and the slow, meditative finale (which touches depths even more profound than the Stabat Mater which was to follow it), Guillaume Tell is recognised as one of the greatest masterpieces of its time. During recent years the Italian conductor Evelino Pido has regularly directed an opera in concert at la Monnaie. This year, with a work that is in every aspect enormous, he will realise a tour de force.
Guillaume Tell is Rossini’s last opera (1829), but in comparison with the one before this it follows its own path. What place do you think this opera occupies in the evolution of Rossini’s work?
After the creation of Guillaume Tell, Rossini lived for another forty years but composed nothing more apart from his Petite Messe solennelle and several light Péchés de Vieillesse but not a single opera. Musicologists have pondered on the long silence that followed what would come to be seen as his masterpiece. At that time Rossini was the greatest living composer, not only in Paris where he lived, but in the whole world of opera. Beethoven and Wagner, amongst others, recognised him as a great maestro. But the praise only served to increase the expectations, all the more after the successful premiere of Auber’s La Muette de Portici in 1928 which heralded a new turning point in the history of opera in Paris – the new grand opera had its first triumph. It is in this context that Rossini composed Guillaume Tell. The huge effort required to write this opera certainly exhausted Rossini; he felt incapable of ever surpassing this masterpiece. The character of Guillaume Tell symbolises the huge fervour for national liberty born during that period, to such an extent that the libretto could cleverly play to the spirit of the time both on a political and social level. For me this opera is a landmark in the history of music: imposing and lofty like a cathedral, it towers over and dominates its surroundings. Every note is important! Of course the arias and ensembles grab our attention but the recitatives accompanied by the orchestra, the music of which is dramatic and declamatory, are simply magnificent!
Does that make this one so different from the other operas he composed?
Yes, this was unusual! Of course it was grand opera and Rossini lived in Paris where grand opera first saw the light of day. That’s why he wrote this opera in French, an added effect for him. Of course he had already written such works as Le Comte Ory, Le Siège de Corinthe and Moïse and Pharaon, but with this opera it was different and everyone was impatient to see it…
This work was immensely popular in its day but it is hardly ever performed today – why is that?
The reason is obvious. The extreme length and the grandiose sets mean that it is very expensive to mount a stage version. That is why we have decided to present a concert version. Some of the greatest singers of the period starred in its premiere – the tenor, Adolphe Nourrit was Arnold, Laure Cinti-Damoreau sang Mathilde and Henri Bernard played the lead role. Likewise today we have called on some of the best singers, singers who we couldn’t call on for the long rehearsal period that a stage version would involve.
Does this opera work well in concert version?
It is and will always remain a grand opera, and, of course, a stage version would add another dimension. But at least a concert version gives the public the chance to discover the music as well as ensuring the reliability and quality of the vocal line-up.
This immense work requires a huge range of voices and a large orchestra. Doesn’t this represent a fearsome challenge for the conductor?
Yes, of course it does, but at the same time it is a real pleasure! I repeat: this work is incredibly beautiful. Take, for example, the overture: Rossini operates here on so many levels, with, amongst others, a superb solo for the cello. He thus affords a lesson to all the composers, even to Verdi! This score contains a powerful energy, beautiful melodies, and astounding harmonies, not to mention magnificent parts for the choir and the orchestra, which, alongside the singers, is also to be numbered amongst the stars of this opera! Guillaume Tell is an extremely complex work but bewitching, which for each of us, not just me, represents a real challenge. The music is so beautiful that I can’t imagine any listener not being moved by it!
It goes without saying that you have chosen the original French version over the Italian version for this performance…
Yes, I have already directed the Italian version, but this is the first time I have directed the original French version. So this will be a first for me too! But of course the music stays the same…
However your decision to do the full version without cuts is less obvious given the length of the work!
We have only made the cuts that Rossini, himself, authorised. Although he never directed the work himself he would certainly have been present at the rehearsals and agreed to the cuts that were envisaged at the time. After the premiere he, himself, asked for some extra cuts to be made. In fact, he wrote the work as he wished it to be but was open to changes. He, too, had to take account of the possibilities and limits of the singers…
Are there particular aspects of this work that you consider important in performance as well as in Rossini’s work in general?
To begin with we have to distinguish the Rossini serio from the Rossini comico. Most conductors tackle them both in the same way although the sound of one is not the sound of the other! In his comic works everything has to be more transparent, the staccato must be brillante. The staccato in the Rossini serio must be played more a la corda which makes the sound rounder, richer in the harmonies. The violinists’ bowing must also be different as it determines the phrasing which varies according to the genre. At the same time, this work is very French: the arias of the title role do not fit the Italian style of recitative-aria-cabaletta but use the structure of the French style of grand opera. In parallel to that, we are conscious of the ballet music that the French enjoyed at that time. This French aspect determines not only the form but also the timbre.
Our present day orchestral instruments no longer have the same timbre and intensity of those in Rossini’s time. Does this create any problems of balance?
No, even though our fortissimo of today is no longer that of those instruments contemporaneous with Rossini its impact is the same. It is important to keep the intended strength but to attenuate the dynamic in order not to drown the voices. The music is, of course, vertical as well: thus a fortissimo is possible with the woodwinds, but in the case of the brass it is, above all, the timbre that is important: a mezzoforte is often enough to produce the required timbre. The same thing is true for the percussion. It is very important that the orchestra bears this in mind.
You radiate an incredible enthusiasm for this music…
I have already said: for me it is a cathedral! Let me just give you an example: I find the finale one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. Using the simplest of methods – an ostinato of three assorted sounds, a fioritura and a song of freedom – Rossini created heavenly music. It is no longer Rossini, it is God!
Interview by Reinder Pols