Monday, July 18, 2011

Prom 2 Semi-Review

William Tell
concert performance; sung in French.
Michele Pertusi baritone (William Tell)
John Osborn tenor (Arnold Melchthal)
Matthew Rose bass (Walter Furst)
Frédéric Caton bass (Melchthal)
Elena Xanthoudakis soprano (Jemmy)
Nicolas Courjal bass (Gesler)
Carlo Bosi tenor (Rodolphe)
Celso Albelo tenor (Ruodi)
Mark Stone baritone (Leuthold)
Malyn Byström soprano (Mathilde)
Patricia Bardon mezzo-soprano (Hedwige)
Davide Malvestio bass (Huntsman)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome
Antonio Pappano conductor


When it comes to keeping spirits high, nobody comes close. Rossini's music uncorks and fizzes through the air like a Veuve Cliquot. He is, to this day, opera's great comic artist. Opera humor is generally quite lame, but comedy is not just the art making you laugh, it's also the art of making you smile. And just as no opera composer earns more tears than Verdi, nobody gets more grins-per-bar than Rossini.

After an early failure, Verdi wisely waited to make a second comedy until he was eighty. By the time of Falstaff, he had written the perfect operatic tragedy with Otello. His mastery of tragedy was so ironclad that all he could do after Otello was to find a completely new direction.

Rossini had written dramas all through his career, but they have never attained the popularity of his comedies. The reason is that Rossini's natural effervescence is unsurpassed, and he could never tone it down sufficiently for the moments of repose which drama requires. By the time Rossini turned 39, he had written 38 operas. And while his mastery of craft was undeniable, he still lacked the maturity to branch out into a genre for which he was not naturally suited.

William Tell has all the sparkle of a Rossini comedy, but the moments of true weight are all too few. There are moments which sound like proto-Verdi grandeur (and at the very end, proto-Wagner), but these moments are far too few. In the meantime we are treated to all sorts of pleasures which sound like the rest of Rossini, with not enough difference to make us understand why this drama is particularly special among the rest of Rossini's output. I was put in mind of Rossini's comment that Wagner has great moments but awful quarter-hours. That's precisely how I felt about the experience of listening to William Tell.

Antonio Pappano marshalled the forces of Santa Cecilia in Rome with his typical hyper-effervesence. Some passages sounded overly frenetic even for Rossini. But with James Levine's health problems, there is no conductor more reliable today in directing Italian opera than Pappano, Muti included. Pappano is the Victor de Sabata to Levine's Toscanini and Muti's Ettore Panizza (what that means is for another day). The singers were, to a man (and woman) competent in the extreme and the choral work was a marvel. A wonderful performance, if you like this sort of thing.

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