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A Return to Rossini’s Days of Yesteryear

07.10.11
Julianna Di Giacomo
The New York Times

By Steve Smith

KATONAH, N.Y. — Great minds have long grappled with one of opera’s enduring mysteries: Why did the composer Gioachino Rossini, at the height of his fame and his creative powers in 1829, stop composing operas and effectively retire after the premiere of “Guillaume Tell” at the Paris Opera that year?

During a concert performance of the work here on Friday at the Caramoor International Music Festival, another mystery came into focus. Why is this opera, admired by Berlioz and Wagner, and a crucial resource to Verdi, Meyerbeer and many others, so seldom heard? This performance, presented as part of the invaluable Bel Canto at Caramoor series and sung in the original French, reinforced that question and pointed toward some possible answers.

Yes, “Guillaume Tell” is long. This performance, insightfully conducted by Will Crutchfield, Caramoor’s director of opera, ran to four hours. It might have been presented in a longer version were budget no concern, a point suggested in a candid program note by Mr. Crutchfield. But when Wagner’s epics still hold the stage and opening up standard cuts in Handel operas is a healthy pastime, duration is a poor excuse for neglect.

Yes, the opera is daunting, with high-flown lines that push vocalists to extremes and rich instrumental writing suited to the finest of orchestras. Here Mr. Crutchfield mustered a cast of experienced singers and talented aspirants, and accompanied them with the versatile Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Nearly everything Rossini intended was accounted for, most of it nobly acquitted.

You were left to conclude that the neglect of “Guillaume Tell,” a grand saga in which the Swiss hero of the title leads his fellow villagers to victory over an Austrian occupying force, owes less to received wisdom than to dramatic unevenness. The libretto, adapted by manifold hands from Schiller’s 1804 play, is serviceable but wayward. Electrifying arias, duos and ensembles are surrounded by padding. Character interactions can be questionable.

Those blemishes might be overcome by a crafty production; you could imagine a video-enhanced Robert Lepage spectacle. But here, in a concert performance (“semi-staged” was an overly generous euphemism), the work’s longueurs were inescapable if not insurmountable.

The bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs, playing Tell, set the bar high throughout the evening, his combination of potency and assurance unassailable. As Arnold, a Swiss villager romantically involved with an Austrian princess, the tenor Michael Spyres sang sweetly and stylishly but sometimes strained for climactic notes; more troubling was a stage bearing stiff and detached even by concert standards.

The mezzo-soprano Vanessa Cariddi was noble and eloquent as Hedwige, Tell’s wife. Talise Trevigne, a bright, appealing soprano, sparkled as Jemmy, Tell’s brave young son.

With the arrival in Act II of the soprano Julianna Di Giacomo as Mathilde, Hapsburg princess and daughter to the occupying governor, Gesler, came the evening’s first lightning bolt: a show-stopping account of the aria “Sombre forêt,” ravishing in its emotional efficacy and nuance. Ms. Di Giacomo had a lustrous evening; in the fourth act you were grateful that Mr. Crutchfield had included a gorgeous trio for Mathilde, Hedwige and Jemmy, cut by Rossini after the premiere, and the luminous prayer that followed.

Smaller roles were capably handled, and standouts included the baritone Scott Bearden as a tyrannical Gesler and another baritone, Michael Nyby as the shepherd Leuthold. Yet what impressed most about the performance was its thoroughgoing clarity and equanimity, which extended to exactingly prepared, compellingly executed contributions from the chorus and orchestra. On balance, this account of “Guillaume Tell” lived up to the work’s legend.