fri 19/08/2022

Guillaume Tell, Chelsea Opera Group, QEH | reviews, news & interviews

Guillaume Tell, Chelsea Opera Group, QEH

Guillaume Tell, Chelsea Opera Group, QEH

Impassioned, well-paced concert performance proves Rossini's last opera a masterpiece

Was Rossini, credited with the unsinkable comment that Wagner had "beautiful moments but bad quarters of an hour", hoist by his own petard in his last and grandest opera? For while Wagner, at least in performances as well-paced as the one I heard of Siegfried in the hands of last night's valiant field marshal Dominic Wheeler, really ought to have no dull moments, Rossini's Guillaume Tell offers many stunning quarters of an hour but just a couple which are so-so. In Chelsea Opera Group's blazing concert performance, however, none of it was less than compelling.
All three and a half hours of it, that is, rather than the full-pelt four, because cuts there were, most regrettably the piquant ballet music Rossini had to serve up for Paris in 1829. What there was came across as gleaming, thrusting and wonderfully evocative of the Swiss nature which was clearly a major driving force behind the composer's inspiration; with tone-painting of this quality, and respect for many of the composer's spatial effects, we could well do without the kind of fustian staging I dimly remember from the opera's last airing at Covent Garden 20 years ago.

And all this from an amateur, or rather semi-professional orchestra. Wheeler, left arm in a sling as the result of a severed tendon, conducted economically with his batonless right hand, making sure that the four-scene narrative of the overture didn't fire on all cylinders as it can afford to in the concert hall when there's less to come. Rushing waters, rustling forests and ferocious storms acquired their full force over the span of the evening. Though intonation, starting with that treacherous cello solo, could go awry, the fullness of sound and definition of phrasing were never in doubt, reminding us that even when Rossini could go a little into French-grand-opera autopilot, he gives the players a phrase, a colour or a counterpoint of unnatural felicity.

Yet despite the epic scope, this is still Italian bel canto at heart, and COG's casting skills, excellent in the leads but not the bit parts of their last offering, Verdi's La traviata, yielded top form last night. The real showstopper was tenor Mark Milhofer, a singular voice in a thousand - feminine-toned but able to pull out a few crucial stops, fast-vibratoed but infallibly musical in every phrase. A born lover and poet rather than a warrior, he brought sheer operatic magic to most of what he sang: not just the sylvan beauties of Arnold's Act Two duet with the princess on the wrong side of the Swiss cause and the plangency of "Asile héréditaire" but, most surprisingly, in the depth of emotion when Tell informs him that the father we've hardly met has been murdered by villainous Austrian tyrant Gessler. Could tears really have sprung to my eyes in this stock Italianate moment, I wondered? They had, and they returned surprisingly regularly in a drama which stresses the fragile bonds of parents and children.

Jonathan Summers, too, rose to the challenge of the limpid cavatina in which he bids son Jemmy keep still while he attempts to shoot the arrow through the apple on his head. Every key moment - this, the proud declamation of "I am William Tell still" and the curse on the oppressors - made its mark; and yet Summers seemed less involved than the other singers, eyes fixed on the score or cast down when sitting and waiting. With much more to make of this than his absurd role in Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna, he proved at least that he's still the authentic Italianate baritone, a slot which younger singers like Gerald Finley and Simon Keenlyside struggle to fill.

More evidently delighted with the rest of the proceedings was Patrizia Biccirè, a relatively late replacement for the Princess Mathilde of Majella Cullagh, and a real class act: ever so slightly light for the part, but, like perfect match Milhofer, a true stylist with the more florid writing and weaving pure enchantment with him in the depths of the Rütli woods - a magic much abetted by the forest murmurs of clarinettist Alan Maries. Her wind-and-brass-backed Act Four trio with the other ladies, the admirable Sarah Pring as Mrs Tell and well-cast Eva Ganzaite as plucky Jemmy, was another moment where time stood still.

Not every COG event is cast from strength throughout, but this one, with its large dramatis personae, certainly was, even if Matthew Hargreaves's villain seemed to be struggling with incipient infection. Who'd have guessed we have so many good young basses in store? Frédéric Bourreau as Tell's father-in-law Walter added gravitas and soft sympathy to another vital trio; Daniel Grice poured dramatic conviction into his brief appearance as the fugitive murderer of an enemy would-be-rapist. We even had a second true Rossini tenor, last-minute replacement Luciano Botelho, for the fisherman's little romance: a real find as the Brazilian, rather in the Florez mould, is off to sing Almaviva at the Royal Opera next season.

The valiant COG Chorus struggled a bit at times with some very elaborate choral writing, and it would be helpful if the male contingent could be reinforced for occasions like this with a few young voices from the London music colleges. But their immense spirit was a long way from the rather too English demeanour of a larger amateur body like the LSO Chorus, and they backed up the big moments with aplomb. The last is the best of all, a final hymn to nature and liberty as the sun lights up Lake Lucerne and Rossini paves the way for Wagner. It was impossible not to share the elevation of spirits at the end of a remarkable evening.

  • Next Chelsea Opera Group performance will be of Cherubini's Medée at the Cadogan Hall on 20 November
  • More off-the-beaten track Rossini with Garsington Opera's new production of Armida, opening on 5 June

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