It has to be said straight away that William Tell is a colossal challenge, almost as much for its audiences as its performers. People talk of Wagner’s Curse (what can go wrong, usually does, in spades), but Rossini’s operatic swansong is not far behind. What makes it especially daunting for any opera company brave or foolhardy enough to attempt a production – and this before any consideration of how to cast or stage it – is how much of the score to use. An uncut version, stuffed with ballets and other orchestral material, can run for close to five hours. Then, which language? Do you perform it as Guillaume Tell (the original Paris version of 1829), or as Guglielmo Tell, Wilhelm Tell, or plain old William Tell?
Richard Mills, Victorian Opera’s artistic director and conductor of this production of William Tell (call it Guillaume, since it is sung in French), writes in the program book that he has cut the opera down to three hours, as well as omitting the ballets. This is a good thing, although, I have to say, even with slashings of the red pencil, the piece still contains its fair share of what the French delicately call mauvais quart d’heures, when one fears we will still be there at sunrise.
Berlioz, among other enthusiastic Rossini contemporaries, who also included Bizet and Wagner, was more positive about the score. In 1834 he described it as ‘seriously thought out, considered at leisure, and conscientiously executed from beginning to end’. So it proved in the expanses of the Palais, a theatre whose own architecture reflects similar ambition and execution. Indeed, its recent refurbishments, including a repainted exterior, provides the place with an extra, almost Rossinian dash of smart elegance.