It’s a long wait between buthurum-pum-pum, buthurum-pum-pum and ‘Asile héréditaire’ – about three hours, in fact, but Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome, made the wait worthwhile, despite the frequent longeurs of the piece, which was getting its first (almost) complete performance at the Proms. William Tell is not Rossini’s greatest opera, just because it was his last, any more than Falstaff is Verdi’s, and it’s no surprise that the work is infrequently performed, although Chelsea Opera Group gave it a memorable concert airing last year.
If you dont know the piece, and youd like to get an idea of just how exciting, lyrical and engrossing it can be, I recommend you take a look on YouTube for ‘Juan Diego Flórez’ with the aforementioned aria – vocal thrills galore, fabulously warm, perfect singing, and incisive French diction, in music of stirring power and sweetness. The Proms did not provide quite so much of this, the diction suffering particularly, with only Nicolas Courjal’s villain, Gessler, really savouring the language: however, the orchestra made up for any other deficiencies.
You could not ask for more relentlessly driven, exciting playing, with that famous passage in the Overture taken so fast that not one Prommer dared to try and bounce with it, and the horns so insistently blazing throughout. The sweeter, more lyrical passages found the orchestra on sublime form, the support for the singers such as one rarely hears, the pauses so magically engineered that the hall seemed to breathe as one.
If Pappano’s directing and Courjal’s singing were the best of the evening, this is not to say that heroism was lacking elsewhere. John Osborn has a small, sweet voice with a somewhat muffled sound, but he managed Arnold’s Cs, C sharps, Bs and B flats without seeming too much troubled by them – I thought his singing more confident here than on the recording (with Pappano, on EMI) although I miss a sense of engagement in the duets.
I was surprised to find that this was Michele Pertusi’s Proms debut – this great Falstaff (a Grammy winner for that role) has the ideal voice for heroic baritone parts, and his William Tell was warmly paternal, managing the recitatives with flair and almost stopping the show with ‘Ah! tu n’as pas d’enfant!’ Matthew Rose impressed, as he always seems to do, in the small but pivotal role of Walter, and Frédéric Caton was in commanding form as Melchthal.
Elena Xanthoudakis was the best of the women, her bright soprano and direct manner ideal for the role of Jemmy. Patricia Bardon sang fluently as Hedwige, but her diction was not always precise. Incisive French was also not the strong point of Malin Byrström’s Mathilde: she sang ‘Sombre forêt’ to acclaim, and looked fabulous in what appeared to be a wedding dress, but for most of the evening her sound was cloudy, to put it kindly.
The Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia has a long and noble history, from its founding in the 1500s with Palestrina as its president to its years under the distinguished direction of Norbert Balatsch; Ciro Visco took over in 2010, and on this showing its future is assured under his leadership. This was superb choral singing; perhaps a little too muted and cultivated for my taste in ‘Quel Jour serein le ciel presage!’ but ideally abandoned in the hunting and ‘Confederates’ passages. Together with the orchestra, they almost convinced me that this is a great opera – almost, but not quite.