We gave it a B
How would you feel if the only thing people remembered about your masterpiece was the overture-and only because it was hijacked by the Lone Ranger? Pretty bad, I’ll bet, especially if you weren’t getting residuals. So spare some sympathy for poor Rossini. Like Verdi, his successor as the king of Italian opera-who almost lost his mind over the Paris premiere of his opera Don Carlos and wound up rewriting it for the Italians-Rossini nearly drove himself nuts working on this massive entertainment, immersing himself in the fine points of French declamation and prosody only to have the Parisians, as sual, turn up their noses.
William Tell was supposed to have been the first of five French grand operas Rossini was to compose under a 10-year contract with Europe’s most exasperating opera house, but in fact it turned out to be his last stage work. In the 40 years of life he had left, the most famous and successful stage composer of his day never wrote another opera.
I wish I could say that the rest of the opera is as immediately appealing as its overture, but it isn’t. It has to be worked at. William Tell represents Rossini groping his way-often successfully and with great emotional power- toward a more flexible and expressive idiom than the rum-tum-tum-plus-tune of his colleagues Bellini and Donizetti.
Muti and his no-star ensemble give Tell a bang-up reading, and the Scala audience goes suitably wild at the end. (The opera is sung in Italian, of course; so much for Rossini’s French lessons.) Muti is a terrific opera conductor, and why he bothers battling Beethoven and Brahms symphonies with the Philadelphia Orchestra is one of the great mysteries of life. William Tell isn’t for everybody, but for those who got beyond Opera 101, it’s well worth a try. Who was that Masked Man?