25 June 2015 at 2.43pm | 1 Comment
William Tell shoots an apple off his son’s head. It’s about the only scene from the (fictional) Swiss hero’s history that's widely known and, as you’d expect, is crucial both in Schiller’s play Wilhelm Tell and the opera it inspired. Rossini places the scene at his opera’s heart, and marks it with an aria for his protagonist of profound beauty and aching intensity.
‘Sois immobile’ arrives in Act III. The Austrian governor Gesler has forced the Swiss people to celebrate a century of Austrian occupation, and demands that they bow to symbols of his power. Tell refuses: ‘I bow before God alone’. Incensed, Gesler has Tell’s young son Jemmy seized and orders Tell to demonstrate his famed archery skills by shooting an apple off the boy’s head. Tell, aghast, kneels before Gesler immediately – but the tyrant is resolute. Trembling, Tell begs one last embrace with Jemmy, which Gesler grants. With his arms around his son, Tell sings his sole aria in the opera, ‘Sois immobile’ (Stay as still as you can).
Tell has a remarkably powerful presence in the opera, made yet more remarkable by the fact Rossini rarely shines the spotlight on his hero. We learn of Tell’s decency, dignity and strength not through arias but through his actions, whether in ensembles or by his interjections in the opera’s many massive choral scenes. ‘Sois immobile’ is a solitary glimpse into Tell’s mind at a time of great anguish; the one time that he stops, overwhelmed.
The aria is scored with striking simplicity, dominated by a cello line that soars mournfully out of the silence. Though played by half the cello section, the line has a soloistic fluidity. It recalls more than anything the Baroque obbligato, in which a solo instrument performs in dialogue with the singer, offering a wordless commentary on and insight into their words.
Rossini's fellow composer Berlioz singled out the instrumentation of ‘Sois immobile’ for particular praise in his Treatise upon modern instrumentation and orchestration, writing ‘the plaintive design of the cellos… is of touching and admirable effect. It undoubtedly renders the idea of the piece complex; but it does so without constraining the aria. On the contrary, it enhances its affecting and sublime expression.’ Of the many composers this unusual scoring has inspired, perhaps the most notable is Verdi, who echoes ‘Sois immobile’ in Rigoletto’s aria ‘Cortigiani, vil razza dannata’ – another aria in which a despairing father mourns for his child.
Rossini’s soloistic cello line mingles sighing sadness with an anguished urgency, as gasping rests lead into long lines of legato semiquavers. The cellos play alone in the beseeching introduction, seemingly lost, the way forward unclear. By the time the accompanying instruments start, with brief pizzicato notes in the other strings and anguished suspensions in the woodwind, the cello line has fallen into a repetitive pattern – but one still tortured by yearning, twisting between minor and major in constant and uneasy movement.
Tell sings in simple, impassioned declamation. He tells Jemmy to bend his knee, to call upon God, to raise his eyes to heaven. Rossini matches the music absolutely to the rhythms of the text. The effect is that the aria seems almost like a lone long single line, a solemn prayer of growing intensity that reaches its apex with Tell’s plea: ‘Jemmy, think of your mother! She’s waiting for us both!’
For many, ‘Sois immobile’ is the greatest passage in Rossini’s greatest work. Wagner visited Rossini in Paris in 1860, and talk fell to Wagner’s development of declamatory recitative. Wagner cited the ‘free, independent and unfettered’ melody of ‘Sois immobile’, as an example of what he sought to achieve. Rossini rejoined ‘So I made music of the future without knowing it!’. Wagner is said to have replied ‘No – it is music for all time.’
Guillaume Tell runs 29 June–17 July 2015. Tickets are still available.
The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 5 July 2015. Find your nearest cinema.
The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Hélène and Jean Peters and David Hancock.