“A sea that is never still”

“A sea that is never still”

Michele Mariotti returns to La Scala to direct one of Rossini’s most monumental operas, Guillaume Tell, the culmination of the composer’s opera seria repertoire for which the Pesaro-based conductor is a master

27.3 foto per articolo rivista di Michele Mariotti agli applausi

IN Guillaume Tell is an opera that suffered many cuts during rehearsals and its first performances, following its premiere at the Paris Opera on August 3, 1829. The critical edition by Elizabeth Bartlet, published in 1992 by the Fondazione Rossini of Pesaro, reconstructed the text in its entirety, integrating all the cut songs. What version are we hearing in this revival at La Scala?

MM The critical edition of the opera is performed in French virtually in its entirety, with only a few small cuts for the purpose of the performance. We will cut the pas de deux in the Act I dances, Jemmy’s aria and a section of the pas de soldats in Act III. There will be all of the dances, as well as the Mathilde-Jemmy-Hedwige trio in the Finale of Act IV. Therefore, it is a similar version to the one directed at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro in 2013 and again in Bologna in 2014.


IN Ten years have passed since the last Tell. In these years, you have added other Rossini opere serie to your repertoire, in addition to La donna del lago and Semiramide. I’m referring to Moïse et Pharaon and Maometto II. Compared to the dramatic and compositional strategy Rossini developed in Naples and Paris, one of large, closed, articulate numbers and of energetic recitatives with a tragic structure, how has your expanded understanding of Rossini’s opere serie affected your interpretation of today’s Tell?

MM In addition to Rossini’s opere serie, I have conducted a lot of Verdi (except Les Vêpres siciliennes and a few early operas I have performed all the major works) and operas from the French repertoire. We must remember that Rossini composed Guillaume Tell with a critical attitude towards the new musical style that was emerging. He didn’t like photographing reality but rather, as Antonio Zanolini wrote in his biography of the composer, creating that “moral atmosphere that fills the place” within which the characters act, perform.


IN You mean we don’t have to interpret this opera through the lens of what would come later…

MM Rossini demonstrated his ability to embrace a style – I mean the Romantic style – which had not yet exploded at the time. Tell is not a romantic opera but rather pre-romantic, marked by a different colour. In these years, I have worked a lot on the voice instrument, on the orchestral colour. In this opera, there is new breath, a new colour, and there is the incredible presence of nature, which we only saw in Donna del lago. The experiences I have had in recent years lean in this direction. I will not distort Tell;I will not make it a romantic opera. For example, Arnold’s aria in Act IV “Asile héréditaire” has a different orchestration from the rest of the opera that corresponds to the evolution of the character. At the beginning, Arnold cares little about the country or the fight. He is simply in love with Mathilde and wants to love her despite the political conflict and the difference in social status. It is the death of his father that causes him to change and to declare himself ready to fight to avenge him. For this reason, the aria is different from the rest of the opera. I do not agree with seeing Arnold as a heroic tenor; to me he is still in love. Then there is the trio of women in Act IV, which is important because it highlights another theme: a sense of belonging, attachment to one’s roots, love, as well as solidarity between Mathilde and Hedwige, Tell’s wife. A trio of women is rare, a gift, present only in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and Strauss’ Rosenkavalier.


IN You spoke about the colour. In Tell, there is a unique colour that is one with the natural landscape and its sounds, with the life of the Swiss nation.

MM This opera has a particular flow. There is the constant rhythmic pulsing of nature like a sea that is never still. This panicky aspect is expressed in the constant flow of the music’s rhythm, like in the Mathilde-Arnold duet in Act II, in Mathilde’s aria “Sombre forêt”, in which the triplet accompaniment glides and never stops, and in Guillaume Tell’s own arioso “Sois immobile.”


IN Speaking of Guillaume, we notice that he has only one, albeit grand, piece, introduced as the Overture by the cello.

MM The Overture begins in a chamber-like style, with a dark, mysterious, and apprehensive color. Already from the start of the cello solo we understand that Guillame Tell is a hero despite himself. He is a man who trembles when he must undergo the cruellest test by the tyrant Gessler: shooting an apple off the head of his son. So much so that the chorus of soldiers make fun of him, saying “C’est là cet archer redoutable”. Tell is first and foremost a man, which is why from the arpeggio of the first bar of the opera I ask the orchestra to define him not as the hero but a man full of fears who, moved by a love for his family and his people, triumphs in the end. Brashness is not in his nature; he is more courageous. The dominance and uproar belong to nature, and man is overpowered by it.


IN The fact that Guillaume Tell is an anti-hero explains why he has not risen to become a myth of the Risorgimento. Although it is difficult to ascribe precise political intentions to Rossini, certainly the theme had political implications at the time, especially when one considers that just under a year after the premiere of the opera, Paris would be the stage for a second revolution that would see the absolutist government of Charles X overthrown, replacing him with Louis Philippe I d'Orléans on the throne in July 1830. Thus, the central assumption of the Tell myth, that the necessary consequence of every tyrannical government is revolution, came true. For this reason, even a peaceful family man like Tell is dragged into confrontation by the arrogance and abuse perpetrated by the governor and soldiers sent by the Habsburgs to occupy the Swiss Confederation.

MM It is everyday heroism, the kind that drives you to defend your loved ones. In fact, in the last act, Hedwige, during her prayer, asks Providence to save Guillaume who dies a victim of his love for his country and devotion to its ideals.


IN The grandeur of nature, imbued with a sense of the sublime, finds its climax in the celebrated finale.

MM You dream of being a conductor so that you can conduct this page. It is music that hardly needs a conductor, that seems to proceed on its own, similarly to the finale of Moïse et Pharaon and Moses in Egypt. It is more similar to Beethoven than to other Romantic composers.


IN You mean Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony?

MM Yes, but also Symphony No. 5, in which the theme of the latter half is not developed but rather repeats, a bit like in “Sombre forêt” when we witness the continuous repetition of triplets. The Finale of Tell, in terms of construction, is just a succession of arpeggios of disarming simplicity. This demonstrates the concept of abstraction in Rossini’s music and how difficult this music is because it is not sufficient unto itself, but lives on through the performer and his ideas. It is self-sustaining music. It is not Bellini, whose melody stands on its own with just a pizzicato or a simple arpeggio. Rossini’s music needs to be performed and it is not enough to just follow what is written. There are many tempo changes that I personally believe are unavoidable despite not being indicated. There is always a theatrical or textual reason that guides my executive decisions, in the recitatives and in the relationship between the music and the spoken word. Every rallentando has a theatrical purpose. When Gessler forces the Swiss to bow to his hat, a symbol of power, and says “Je le veux!”, the character could be authoritarian, perfidious, or devious, depending on how you construct it. The ultimate meaning of the Finale, of its soft melody delivered by the natural sound of the horn, lies in man's reconciliation with the environment, disfigured by violence and war, which is what we are experiencing today. It’s an invitation to become part of our nature again.

Ilaria Narici
Translation by Alexa Ahern