As I may have mentioned before, I am a bit of a Rossini fan, so when I discovered by chance that the Chelsea Opera Group was putting on a concert performance of his last opera, Guillaume Tell, I was there like a shot. It proved to be a surprising evening. I thought that I knew Rossini, but I was wrong.
Much of the programme was taken up with commentary on the strange fact that Tell proved to be Rossini's last opera even though he was then only 37. There remains disagreement about why he chose to retire, but what hearing the opera makes very clear is how unfortunate this was in musical terms. Tell is very far from being your typical knockabout Rossini with zipping, decorative arias, and choruses and ensembles dashing towards a breakneck conclusion. Yes, there are moments of this, the conclusion of the famous overture being one of them, but much of the rest is truly grand opera. So much so indeed that at times I almost thought I was about to be in the depths of the Escurial with Philip II, or crossing the rainbow bridge into Valhalla.
So far as I can tell the chorus and orchestra are amateurs and I'm afraid that in places it showed. There were a few too many cases of ropy tuning or the chorus getting out of sync with the band. The big problem, though, was a just perceptible lack of security. The overture is a good example of this. The end of the overture needs to ratchet up madly, you need to feel that sense of being driven. This is not to say the orchestra didn't get up a good head of steam but it just didn't quite have that ultimate Rossini sparkle and spring. During the interval I overheard another audience member commenting on the chorus, he obviously had some connection with the group, and was noting the loss of younger members to exams. Indeed the problem was reminiscent of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus – something of a lack of power against the orchestra in the climaxes, and some uncertainty in the fiddliest bits. A recruitment drive in the music schools would seem to be in order. Perhaps the fair thing to say is that this was a very creditable performance for an amateur group, but it just wanted that bit more zing, fire, and excitement.
The soloists too were rather a mixed bag, again this is presumably a consequence of how much you can afford to pay them. However, I do wish that some of them had got more into the spirit of the thing. Concert opera needs performers who will really inject drama into it to make up for the lack of staging. Guillaume Tell is in particular need of this because of the amount of spectacle – rebellions, stormy river boat trips, shooting apples off heads etc. Unfortunately, many of the soloists seemed incapable of reflecting the drama of the text in their delivery, particularly outside the arias. A major exception here was Mark Milhofer as the Swiss unfortunately in love with the Austrian countess.
Jonathan Summers took the lead role. Summers is clearly not the singer he once was. The voice is something of a deep growl, which tends to disappear when the orchestra is at full volume. He also never really convinced me as a desperate rebel. Mark Milhofer (Arnold), the principle tenor role, by contrast gave a heroic performance of a really tough part. As his love interest, and the main female role, Patrizia Biccire was a late stand-in. I found her opening aria a little bit understated and couldn't quite be doing with the “brava” which rang out from somewhere to my left at the end of it, but she warmed up as the evening went on and was increasingly powerful and beautiful. The rest of the cast are mostly bit parts and were taken serviceably if not outstandingly, with two exceptions. Daniel Grice was sadly wasted as Leuthold. He only appears a couple of times, but his powerful bass rang out magnificently through the hall. It is exciting to read in the programme that he has been signed up to the ROH Young Artists programme, and I look forward to future performances at Covent Garden. Appearing in the trouser role as Jemmy, Tell's son, was Eva Ganizate. Again this is a slightly thankless part, but she sang it beautifully, and Ganizate is so stunning that I forgave her the evening gown even though it made the idea of her as Tell's son ever so slightly unconvincing.
Hearing this piece in concert it is easy to see why it isn't often performed. The costs of an authentic production would be pretty high, an inauthentic production would be likely to fall victim to the curse of director's opera, and no doubt as with so many such operas it would be difficult to find the singers. And yet, this is clearly a significant milestone in the development of opera. In scale and sound it looks towards those later masters of grand opera and done with first class forces (and I mean no disrespect to COG's efforts) it would approach them in drama and excitement. Chelsea Opera Group deserves praise for attempting a work on this scale, and giving us an opportunity to hear it. This performance should be a spur to our subsidised opera companies to surpass it.
P.S. Two housekeeping notes –
a) It would be nice if the Opera Group could indicate clearly that surtitles are to be provided. I forked out £4 for the text on top of £3 for the programme – in the end I was glad I had done so as the surtitles don't identify the characters, and it was instructive to see what had been cut, but it would be nice if the choice could be made clear.
b) One 20 minute interval in nearly four hours of Rossini seemed a little skimpy. I'm not saying that I wanted intervals of Wagnerian length, but a little more time to catch one's breath would be appreciated.