Guillaume Tell, Opera by G. Rossini
Although he had nearly four decades of life ahead of him, Gioachino Rossini approached Guillaume Tell with the conviction it would be his last opera, so he made sure his exit from the genre was memorable. As plot, he picked the theatre play William Tell by Friedrich Schiller, who in turn had penned it after the legend of the Swiss folk hero of the same name. With a French libretto by Victor-Joseph Étienne de Jouy and Hyppolite L. F. Bis, Guillaume Tell offers a musically inspired and dramaturgically rich take on the classic tale. Rossini’s final operatic work lives again on the stage of Wiener Staatsoper.
The story of the heroic revolutionary William Tell who proudly displayed his unparalleled skills with the crossbow and the famous ‘apple shot’ is central to the birth of modern Switzerland. His heroic assassination of the tyrant Albrecht Gessler dealt a fatal blow to the Habsburgs’ dominion over the alpine territories and gave impetus to the Swiss Confederacy. A plot so action-packed and legendary was the perfect match for Rossini’s flamboyant and expressive compositional style, and the Maestro invested his usual energy into the project. The resulting four-act opera was premiered on 3 August 1829 at Salle Le Peletier, the theatre of the Paris Opéra at the time, and it was well received despite its length of over four hours. The extended overture and the bombastic finale were among the highlights that struck a particularly powerful chord with audiences.
In subsequent performances, however, Guillaume Tell proved taxing for the average opera-goer, and a more palatable three-act structure was worked out, which is the standard version nowadays as well. Musically, the opera carries the weight of a final project, as Rossini had most likely envisioned. The zeal and passion he injected into the score propelled the opera to success, but they also left the composer mentally exhausted and physically frail. While the actual reasons Rossini retired from opera at the prime creative age of 37 remain debated, there is no doubt that Guillaume Tell was a powerful and apt good-bye.