William Tell (Rome, 2010)
Album + Live
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The last and grandest of his 40-odd operas, William Tell is also one of Rossini's very finest. Not merely the summation of his well-honed craft, it is also remarkably adventurous and forward-looking. Its vast romantic canvass proved hugely influential on the next generation of operatic masters: composers as widely different as Verdi, Meyerbeer and even Wagner owe it a great debt. The most famous episodes of the Tell legend - the shooting of the head-perched apple, daring escape by boat in a storm - feature in a gripping and human score which proves beyond doubt that Rossini was far more than a musical comedian.
The opera was a massive and - initially, at least - enduring success: in 1868 Rossini attended its 500th performance at the Paris Opera, 39 years after its premiere. But tastes change, and its epic five-hour performance time has been a major factor in its recent neglect. Another is the herculean role of Arnold, an endurance test which few modern-day tenors could pass. One who does, however - and with flying colours - is John Osborn. His combination of supreme vocal agility, phenomenal stamina and tonal beauty is a principal asset of this new set, his sumptuous account of Arnold's Act Four aria a tour de force.
Antonio Pappano directs a taut and often thrilling account of score, aided by his increasingly crack band of Santa Cecilia players. The strong cast includes Gerald Finley, commanding in the title role, and Malin Bystrom in beguiling voice as Mathilde. Recorded at live concert performances in Rome in 2010, the sound is vivid and atmospheric, though some may find the audience applause between numbers distracting. Its only serious rival (sung in the original French) is the 1972 studio recording with Montserrat Caballe and Nicolai Gedda, also on EMI; this new version is a superb modern alternative. EMI has gone to town on the packaging, from the fat booklet full of photos, intelligent notes and complete libretto (unusual these days) to the witty cover image. Pappano's compelling advocacy, proving that there is much more to William Tell than its famous overture, ought to win Rossini's last operatic word many new fans.