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Image Entertainment presents
Rossini's William Tell (Guglielmo Tell) (1991)

"We swear by our fathers, by our wounds and by our woes....to beat down these wicked tyrants!"
- William Tell (Giorgio Zancanaro)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: October 19, 2001

Stars: Giorgio Zancanaro, Cheryl Studer, Chriss Merritt
Other Stars: Giorgio Surjan, Luigi Roni, Amelia Felle, Luciana D'Intino, Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet of La Scala, Riccardo Muti, conductor.
Director: Luca Ronconi

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 03h:56m:58s
Release Date: March 25, 1998
UPC: 014381435726
Genre: opera

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B+B-C+ D+

DVD Review

Few pieces of classical music are as familiar as the ending of the William Tell Overture, but precious few listeners are familiar with any of the rest of Gioacchino Rossini's sprawling and grandiose opera about freedom and liberty. Seldom performed at all, it is almost never performed without major cuts to bring it down to size. Other than Goetterdammerung, it is one of the very longest operas in the repertoire.

The first act is set against a peasant wedding, as three shepherds are to be married. Although the Swiss are jubilant on the occasion, William Tell (Giorgio Zancanaro) stands aloof from the proceedings, brooding on the need to revolt against the tyrant governor, Gessler. His friend Arnold (Chris Merritt) is sympathetic, but having saved a Hapsburg princess, Matilda (Cheryl Studer) from an avalanche, Arnold has fallen in love with her. The second act finds the two of them in a clandestine meeting, and Matilda convinces Arnold to become a supporter of Gessler (apparently her relation) in order to smooth the way for their romance. Hardly has this happened, however, than Tell and Walter Farst (Giorgio Surjan) appear to let Arnold know that Gessler has had Arnold's father murdered. Swearing vengeance, Arnold has little choice but to disavow Matilda and join the rebellion. In the third act, Gessler (Luigi Roni) sets his hat on a pole and tells the Swiss that they must pay it homage as if it were him. Tell refuses, and Gessler has him arrested. To cause Tell pain, Gessler orders him to use a crossbow to shoot an apple off the head of his son Jemmy (Amelia Felle), or the boy will be killed. Tell reluctantly agrees, but when he is successful and the peasants claim victory, Gessler orders Tell put to death anyway. No, tortured first and then put to death, would be better, he concludes. It seems tyranny is not set aside quite so lightly as by a dramatic gesture such as the fabled apple shooting. Yet Tell is not without other resources (including deus ex machina)and manages to win freedom for his people, nonetheless.

The unavoidable conclusion upon watching a mostly uncut performance of this opera (the program states that it is fully uncut, but several recitatives are omitted), is that there is plenty that could be cut. The first act barely sets up the action and spends far too much time in the peasant celebrations. Then there is an interminable ballet in the third act, before the climactic apple shooting. The only redeeming thing about this latter ballet is that, in part, it revisits the famed Lone Ranger music, although in a permutation that would scarcely be recognizable, if it were not for the distinctive rhythms. The opera itself, Rossini's last, is an uneasy marriage between opera buffa and the beginnings of the romantic opera that would flourish under Verdi. Had the conventions not been so strong, permitting elimination of much of the extraneous material, Tell could have been a much better drama. The music is generally satisfactory, though only a few segments (notably the love scene in the 2nd act between Arnold and Matilda) are really memorable.

Zancanaro is an unfortunate choice for this lead. He is exceedingly stiff and hardly the charismatic leader that would be able to excite an oppressed people into rebellion. Indeed, he's presented here as hardly a likeable character. Matilda and Arnold are far more interesting, and accordingly, Merritt and Studer put more into their performances. Studer in particular conveys a lovesick woman well, and the bitterness at their enforced parting is moving and feels genuine. Roni makes for a nicely loathable villain, and Ernesto Gavazzi is excellent in the role of Rudolph, Gessler's sadistic lieutenant. Even more bloodthirsty than Gessler himself, Gavazzi merrily chews the scenery with his cruelty.

The orchestra is quite capable, but the chorus apparently has only one setting: fortissimo. No matter what the content of the lyrics, no matter the situation, they're always belting it out at 110%. This is quite irritating in the first act, which is very chorus-heavy. The result is a tiresome sameness that lends no emphasis to any highlights. Delicacy is quite beyond them, it seems. Luckily the second act permits the smaller ensembles to provide some nuance to their singing. The chorus does have a good moment near the end of Act 3, as the soldiers' chorus sings "Viva Gessler" while the chorus of the Swiss sings, "Gessler be damned," but the impact of this is due more to the composer than the performance.

Although at first blush far too much attention seems to be paid to the Arnold-Matilda romance, it actually works well in context. Here we see the difficult human choices that need to be made in this situation, between one's love and the needs of liberty, tinged with vengeance. This perfectly sets up Tell's sacrifice in the third act, for up until then he has been mostly a talking rebel. But when Gessler forces him to risk his own son's life, Tell's character finally achieves a much needed depth. The result is a much more resonant finale, making the subplot highly vital. Otherwise this opera would drop to the level of a puppet show; the romance subplot keeps the issues real and vital for the audience and not just a matter of theoretical politics.

The performance is recorded live before an audience, which creates numerous problems. Most severe of these is an extremely poor miking setup that results in a great deal of extraneous noise making its way into the program. I would have much preferred a controlled performance where such problems could be corrected. Still, it's not a bad attempt.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: As a live performance, there are obvious limitations to camera work, lighting and color. Much of the action is hidden in murky shadows; the first act ballet is hardly legible at all, it's so dark. Black levels are acceptable for a live performance, but shadow detail and clarity are lacking. The backgrounds are innovatively large screens with mountain imagery rear-projected upon them. This works quite well for setting the scene, although it has an unfortunate tendency to make the characters look insignificant since they are so much out of scale. The picture is slightly on the soft side, but there wasn't any edge enhancement visible. There are occasional compression artifacts, but nothing outrageous. An acceptable transfer, other than the darkness.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The virtues of a PCM soundtrack to an opera should be obvious, and that is the case here; there are no compression issues to deal with, and the music has a rich and full sound throughout. Bass extension is good for the most part and the vocals are clear and crisp. However, there seem to be microphones lying on the stage, because whenever anyone moves, there is an echoing thud and microphone noise that I found highly obnoxious. It was almost entirely in the very low register, and I was able to minimize it by shutting off my subwoofer, but this kind of racket is truly inexcusable on a permanent record of an opera such as this. What's here is good; it's just that there's too much extraneous noise that doesn't belong.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Animated menu
Scene Access with 55 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 53 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English
Cast and Crew Biographies
Production Notes
Packaging: Snapper
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:14m:48s

Extras Review: The extras are rather slim, though more than the zero usually found on opera DVDs. In addition to a useful synopsis, production notes, as well as bios of Rossini and conductor Riccardo Muti are included. Chaptering is adequate, with a stop for each number. Subtitles are burned in, however. They are seldom on the screen long enough to be useful, which I found irritating. That's particularly true when, as in much of Rossini, the same phrases are repeated again and again. I found myself trying to remember the subtitles and they vanished so quickly it became a real chore.

The first disc is single layer, and contains the first act. The second disc is RSDL and contains the last three acts of the opera.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

Rossini's mammoth final opera, presented more or less complete, here suffers from a weak lead and far too much annoying mike noise. The other performances are good, however, and aside from some slow parts, the opera itself holds up well. Worth a look.


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