The Controversial Opera

San Carlo Theatre, Naples

 

It seems that the opera William Tell by Gioachino Antonio Rossini is intrinsically linked to the William Tell Overture or, as some might put it, “the music of the Lone Ranger.” 
 
Rossini was born in February 29, 1792 in Pesaro, Italy. He was quite prolific in his creativity: composing thirty-nine operas as well as sacred music, chamber music, songs and many instrumental and piano pieces.  His best-known operas include the Italian comedies Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), La Cenerentola (Cinderella), the French-language epic Moїse et Pharaon (Moses in Egypt) and his most controversial opera, Guglielmo Tell. 
 

Gioacchino Antonio Rossini

William Tell is an opera in four acts written to a French libretto by Etienne de Jouy and Hippolyte Bis. It is based on Friedrich Schiller’s play, William Tell, which drew on the legend dating back to the year 1291 when Austria—a foreign power—ruled the cantons of Uri, Schwytz and Unterwald, now forming part of central Switzerland. 
 
A most significant scenario in the heart of the legend is when William Tell and his son Walter walk passed a prison.  William fails to salute the Governor’s cap mounted on a pole and since failure to salute the Governor’s cap is a crime, William is arrested by the Governor’s guards. William apologizes for his failure to salute the cap maintaining that it was an unintentional oversight. The Governor then declares that he has heard of William’s skill as an archer.
 
At this point, William’s son Walter, who cannot resist bragging about his father states that his father can hit an apple at a distance of a hundred yards.
The Governor then orders William to prove his skill by shooting an apple off his son’s head and warns him that if he misses, he will forfeit his own life.  Young Walter has full confidence in his father’s skill as an archer and stands against a tree with an apple on his head.
 
William removes two arrows from his quiver and puts one in his belt under his tunic.  He then takes aim and shoots directly through the center of the apple. Walter happily brings the pierced apple to his father. As father and son embrace, the second arrow falls from his belt.  When the Governor questions William about the second arrow, William responds by saying, “If the first arrow had struck my child, the second would have gone through your heart.”  
 
The Governor then orders the guards to take William to prison.
The legend of William Tell has over the years become a universal symbol of the victory of the oppressed over the oppressor. Unbeknownst to Rossini as he composed his opera, the political flavor of his opera would become an issue and give him many problems.
 
Its length of four hours as well as its casting requirements, such as the need for a tenor whose range quality was higher than most tenors, proved to be a challenge to produce. Aside from the logistical problems involved with producing an opera of this length, political concerns also plagued Rossini’s opera to various degrees. In Italy, the opera encountered difficulties with the censors of that time, which in effect limited the number of performances and required various parts to be cut from the opera.  
 
The censors were of the philosophy that the title-character, Guglielmo Tell, portrayed a glorified revolutionary figure whose opposition to authority would likely cause political dissension in the real world.
 
Such thinking may have accounted for the fact that the opera had its debut not in Italy but in Paris. It was performed at the Paris Opera House at the Salle Le Peletier on August 3, 1829.  It was not until 1833 at the Teatro San Carlo of Naples that the opera was finally performed in Italy. There were no other performances of the opera in Italy until many years later.
 
Notwithstanding the censorship issues, which had no effect in Austria, the Vienna Court Opera gave four hundred and twenty-two performances of William Tell between the years 1830-1907. 
In Italy, however, the opera was not only censored but banned by various oversight authorities because of its central character’s obstinate entrenchment against authority. Not surprisingly, however, over-emphasis by censors of what would and what would not be permitted had aroused public curiosity.  
 
As it turned out, public curiosity was good for business, because censors were eventually compelled to relax their standards somewhat.  It seems however, that William Tell is remembered, not so much for its standing as an opera but for the opera’s overture with its four movements: Its prelude with the Dawn followed by the Storm and the Calm which follows the storm and finishes with an abrupt finale. Its forceful expression of vigor in the finale is particularly familiar to every American who has ever listened to radio or television broadcasts of the Lone Ranger.
 
Guglielmo Tell was Rossini’s last opera even though the composer lived for nearly forty more years. He had written so many catchy, song-like melodies throughout his scores, that he eventually acquired the nickname, “The Italian Mozart.” Until his retirement in 1829, Rossini had been the most popular opera composer in history.
 

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