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How Rossini’s Guillaume Tell bore witness to revolution in France, Italy and beyond

Operas and plays of the early 1800s allowed the people of Europe to reflect on turbulent recent history.

By Sarah Hibberd (Royal Opera Writer in Residence)

28 May 2015 at 1.44pm | 4 Comments

When Guillaume Tell was first performed at the Opéra in 1829, memories of the 1789 French Revolution and its aftermath were still fresh in the memories of Parisians. The government had instituted a policy of forgetting in 1815: it was illegal to sing revolutionary songs or carry a tricouleur flag in public places, and the statues, portraits and flags of the past 25 years were destroyed in civic spectacles. However, operas and plays of the 1820s bore witness to the public’s need to remember – whether to keep the fires of revolution alive, or to punish those responsible, or to try to make sense of what had happened. Against the wider European backdrop of uprisings in Italy, Spain and Greece, performances of plays and operas on revolutionary themes increased. Adaptations of Schiller’s 1804 play, in which Wilhelm Tell led his Swiss countrymen and women to victory against the brutal Austrians, were particularly popular. The hero could be seen singing, dancing and declaiming his way through the capital’s theatres.

It might seem surprising that Charles X’s repressive government allowed such works to be performed, but the censors accepted the librettos of Auber’s La Muette de Portici (1828), which dramatized a failed revolution in seventeenth-century Italy, and Rossini’s Tell, which emphasized the importance of resisting foreign tyranny. Memories of France’s humiliation at Waterloo in 1815, and the consequent occupation of Paris by foreign troops, had obvious, recent resonances. (The irony that the Swiss had been overrun by Napoleon’s armies and were in the 1820s still trying to free themselves from the administrative systems imposed by the French was an irony that was not lost on some commentators.)

The strong sense of melancholy and nostalgia that permeates the opera – not least in the choral prayer that brings it to a close – can be understood as speaking to the nostalgia felt by many in 1829 for the early, idealistic days of the revolution, before violence and the ambitions of individual leaders derailed the dream. However, in July 1830 France was again overtaken by revolution, and Tell subsequently became a symbol for modern revolutionaries. The opera was recast in 1831 in three (rather than four) acts for the Opéra, and closed with a more triumphant final chorus, concluding ‘Victoire et liberté!’. When Tell left the shores of France, its plot underwent more radical transformations. Thus, at London’s Drury Lane, the hero of Hofer, or the Tell of the Tyrol (1830) was a real-life activist who had in 1809 lead the Tyrolean revolt against Bavarian and French occupation forces, and following his execution by firing squad the following year, Hofer had become a rallying symbol against Napoleon. In Milan, where Austria was still a powerful political force, the opera premiered in 1836 as Vallace, and featured William Wallace leading the Scots in the wars of independence against the English. In Russia two years later, Karl Smelïy (Charles the Bold) depicted Swiss involvement in the Burgundian Wars of the fifteenth century. Walter Scott’s novels therefore became important intermediaries, as audiences were already familiar with the adventures of these medieval heroes.

In the later 1830s and 40s, with its original storyline restored, Rossini’s opera achieved further successes – though Drury Lane’s director suggested that ‘four hours and a half, even of Rossini, are too much for your average cockney’, and it was often ferociously cut.  Ultimately, its themes of liberty and justice, its fusion of nature with the people (the storm seems to be on the side of the Swiss), and its dignified hero made Tell an attractive opera to support national independence and social justice, and it became one of the most frequently performed operas of the century – across Europe, the Americas and beyond.

In my next post, I will offer some thoughts on the rehearsal process for the new production at the Royal Opera House.

Sarah Hibberd is Associate Professor in the Department of Music at the University of NottinghamFind out more about her association with The Royal Opera as Writer in Residence and read other posts in this series.

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.

This article has 4 comments

  1. Tony Boyd-Williams responded on 1 June 2015 at 1:36pm Reply

    Another splendid article and again most enjoyable and informative . Very many thanks Sarah! Might one hope that some of your thoughts will be in the programme?

    Turning again to Verdi, do you think that -apart from Il Trovatore-he also had Rossini's operatic swan song in mind when he composed La Battalia di Legnano in 1848?

  2. Tony Boyd-Williams responded on 1 June 2015 at 1:38pm Reply

    Apologies for spelling error! I should have referred to La battaglia di Legnano.

    • Sarah Hibberd responded on 1 June 2015 at 5:25pm

      Thank you Tony - yes, I'm working on something for the programme, which will draw on some of my experiences of the rehearsals.

      You are spot on - as ever! Verdi's writing for chorus in particular seems to develop the sorts of innovations found in Rossini's Paris operas, especially concerning their revolutionary flavour. Philip Gossett has demonstrated the very close musical as well as drammaturgical similarities between the 'Knights of Death' vow in Act III of La battaglia, and the Act II finale of Tell. The subtext of the reception of Rossini's opera in Italy under Austrian occupation finds its way into Verdi's opera. And the political significance of the chorus becomes much more pronounced in other operas after 1848.

  3. Tony Boyd-Williams responded on 1 June 2015 at 7:30pm Reply

    So very kind of you Sarah .I am fortunate that in the 1960's I saw the WNO productions of both Guilluame Tell and La battaglia -both in the same season with the late and marvellous Ronald Lewis as both Tell and Rolando plus the then special WNO chorus (all amateurs) having the fantastic opportunity of singing within a few days the stirring patriotic choruses of Rossini and Verdi -wonderful memories!
    However ,I am certain that there will be equally wonderful memories of this new production of Tell . Most exciting.!
    Perhaps a few seasons ahead, we might look forward to a new production of La battaglia at ROH?
    Delighted to hear we can look forward to some of your thoughts in the programme .Meanwhile, your thoughts on the rehearsal process are eagerly awaited.

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