With the thermometer at 30º, the Pimm’s bar in overdrive and children cooling off splashily in the fountain outside, the prospect of entering a stifling Queen Elizabeth Hall for a four-hour concert performance of Guillaume Tell was less than enticing.
Doubts were quickly dispelled. After a shaky start with the overture’s exposed cello solo, the Chelsea Opera Group’s semi-professional orchestra hit their stride and Dominic Wheeler (conducting with one hand; the other was trussed up in a splint and sling) took us on a musical adventure that proved every bit as scorching as the temperature outside. At their best in the toughest tuttis, Wheeler’s players maintained unflagging levels of commitment and agility throughout the lengthy evening.
Though the orchestra shone, the gentlemen of the chorus never came close to evoking the “country people, knights, pages, hunters, soldiers, guards, shepherds” and so on for which they were credited. Generalised oratorio-style singing is fatal in concert opera, and their under-characterised contributions threatened to set the evening off balance. How vital it is for companies to employ a stage director to drill operatic ensembles for concert performances.
Happily, a superb team of solo singers came to the rescue, and for this the Chelsea Opera Group’s casting department deserves a bow. Not only were the voices uniformly excellent, they complemented each other with a harmony of vocal textures that was almost visual in its impact.
Jonathan Summers lent his fine Italianate baritone and decades of experience to the title role. Even though he seemed unengaged by the event – head in score, face devoid of expression – his interpretation of the role was always idiomatic. If he was eclipsed on the night by the performance of the opera’s two young lovers, that is largely Rossini’s doing, as for long spells Guillaume Tell is the Arnold ’n’ Mathilde show.
Mark Milhofer as Arnold and Patrizia Biccirè as his bride deserved every one of the ecstatic ‘bravos‘ they received during the evening. Biccirè’s astonishing control, expressiveness and beauty of tone were nowhere more thrilling than in her great Act Two aria, Sombre forêt; Milhofer, meanwhile, showed himself to be a major talent with a prodigious range and technique to spare, and he matched his glorious timbre with platform acting of impassioned conviction.
Smaller roles were all well taken, especially Luciano Botelho (last-minute luxury casting for the brief but exquisitely drawn role of Ruodi the fisherman in Act One) and Daniel Grice, whose fleeting appearance as the brave shepherd Leuthold revealed a magnificent bass voice that augurs well for his impending elevation to the Jette Parker Young Artists scheme at the Royal Opera House.
Guillaume Tell is a remarkable work, not only for its extreme length but for the sense that, even as he renounced opera composition for good, Rossini was still evolving. Listening to this admirable performance it is striking just how clearly his final epic, for all its Italian glory, bears Janus-like links to both Mozart and Berlioz. Moreover, Schiller’s source play may have carried more personal weight for Rossini than we might imagine, for with Act Three ending on a stirring call to arms and the opera as a whole concluding with the a great cry of Liberté!, Italy’s own struggle against its Austrian neighbours cannot have been far from the ex-pat composer’s thoughts.