Prom 2: Rossini “William Tell”, Royal Albert Hall

Posted on July 17th, 2011

You couldn’t see the Lone Ranger for dust – and I doubt we’ve ever heard the most famous gallop in music despatched with such fleet-footed (or should that be hooved) panache. But there are another four or so hours to this particularly story and to hear the whole of Rossini’s epic operatic swansong William Tell played and sung by an Italian orchestra and chorus – the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome – who not only have it entirely under their fingers and in their voices (the live EMI recording is in the shops and online now) but articulate it with such elegance, charm, and excitement under perhaps the greatest operatic stylist of the day, Antonio Pappano, is no more, no less, than you would expect from the opening weekend of the Proms.

Then there is the piece itself which, for all its great length, whizzes by on a tide of zippy choruses, stirring ensembles, and some ferociously difficult and affecting arias. The big surprises here come from the new ground that Rossini is constantly breaking with the piece. His evocation of the natural world, namely the Swiss Alps – a veritable symphony of horns echoing across the gallery of the Albert Hall – is ambitious; then there is the winning personality of the pastorales and divertissements (deliciously nimble woodwind playing throughout) which Benjamin Britten liked so much he plundered them all. But the biggest revelations are to be found in one or two of the big ensembles and an act two trio which portends Verdi to a quite uncanny degree.

Casting was worthy of the Royal Opera’s music director. In the title role we had the quietly authoritative Michele Pertusi whose famous third act solo imploring his son to keep absolutely still for the crucial crossbow shot was a miracle of breathless tension between solo cello and voice. Malin Bystrom’s Mathilde demonstrated limpid phrasing and a third act aria (often cut) where despair is vented in ferociously  difficult roulades and awkwardly placed top notes.

Speaking of which, the notorious final act aria for the tenor Arnold was nailed by the American John Osborn whose singing above the stave (the tessitura in this number is evil) achieved a weightless intensity without recourse to falsetto. There’s nothing more difficult for a tenor than high and soft in full voice and this one stopped the show and put Swiss liberation on hold for a good couple of minutes.

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