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William Tell tale is apt in year of big vote

Everyone knows the overture to William Tell:

Gianandrea Noseda: Will conduct a performance of the William Tell opera at the Usher Hall next week.
Gianandrea Noseda: Will conduct a performance of the William Tell opera at the Usher Hall next week.

that sweet cello section solo, those bucolic Swiss cowbells, peppy trumpet fanfares and - of course! - the rollicking finale, up there with the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as the most famous soundbite in classical music.

The number of people who can hear the overture and not immediately pretend to ride a galloping horse is a different matter. There is even an old joke about it. Q: What's the definition of an intellectual? A: Somebody who hears the William Tell Overture and does not think of The Lone Ranger.

But what about the rest of Gioachino Rossini's final opera? Can anyone hum the music from, for example, the apple scene, in which our Swiss hero valiantly saves his son by shooting a piece of fruit from atop his head with a single arrow shot? Me neither.

In the general consciousness, William Tell is a one-trick pony. Sure, it is an important source for musicologists, who hold it aloft as proof that Verdian grand opera emerged from the stylistic developments in Rossini's later operas. Yet the opera is hardly ever performed in full. A handful of high-profile revivals have been putting it back on the map recently: a new production comes to Welsh National Opera next season, and a concert performance comes to the Edinburgh International Festival this week. But chances to see it are still few and far between.

Why? It is long, for starters, about four hours or thereabouts. And it is difficult to cast. Precious few baritones can muster the strength of character needed to make a convincing Tell: anyone too weedy, too blundering, too wooden, too nervous, too pompous, too whatever, and the long drama will fall flat.

It is not much of a spoiler to point out Tell is a legendarily good marksman, but he is also pretty much the ideal man. He is righteous, passionate and brave; he farms the land, he fights for his country, he navigates treacherous rapids. Try casting that. In Edinburgh the title role is taken by the young Fabio Maria Capitanucci, a regular Rossinian at Italian opera houses but little known in the UK.

The lead female role - the Habsburg princess Mathilde - requires a rare stockpile of vocal stamina and acrobatics. She will be played by Angela Meade, a young American soprano who has been turning heads at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and elsewhere.

But the real problem is Arnold. The notoriously stratospheric and gruelling tenor part is written with so many pitfalls you would think Rossini booby-trapped it on purpose. According to the Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda, who is at the helm of the Teatro Regio Torino production that comes to Edinburgh, there are just two or three tenors in the world who can successfully tackle the role. One of them is the American John Osborn, who will be on stage at the Usher Hall next week.

For those who are not immediately familiar with the full score of William Tell, a little background on what to expect. The work is based on a Schiller play of 1804, which, in turn, is based on a 15th century Swiss folk legend. Rossini and his librettists Etienne de Jouy and Hippolyte Bis set their work in Austrian-occupied medieval Switzerland. Their themes, boiled down, have to do with liberty, courage, patriotism, loyalty: this is picturesque liberal nationalism set to bel canto song.

Tell is a Swiss freedom fighter and, as previously discussed, the perfect man. There is a cross-border love story when the Austrian princess Mathilde falls in love with the son of the Swiss leader, Arnold. The baddie is the Austrian governor Gessler, a juicily brutish villain.

If anyone can make a convincing case for William Tell, Noseda is that person. The laureate conductor of the BBC Philharmonic and former principal guest conductor of the Mariinsky Theatre has been music director at the Teatro Regio since 2007 and has done extremely good things with the company.

He is a long-time champion of obscure Italian repertoire - often 20th century repertoire, but he speaks passionately about Rossini's opera. William Tell is the high point of the composer's output, he says, full of great dramatic sequences and wonderful music.

Noseda has been doing his bit to bring it back into the repertory with a full staging in Turin and concert performances internationally. He assures me Edinburgh audiences "will be carried along by this heroic drama and will totally lose track of time". Well, watch this space.

But whatever you do, do not go to the Usher Hall expecting The Barber Of Seville, warns Noseda. "The style of William Tell is not what we normally associate with Rossini," he says, "not like the classic opera buffa of La Cenerentola and Barbiere di Siviglia."

Tell was the composer's 39th opera, premiered in Paris in 1829. "By this point in his life, Rossini recognised the operatic era he had been living in was coming to an end. Tastes were on the cusp between bel canto and Verdian grand style. He wanted to show the world he was able to master the new style so he wrote William Tell, but once he had proved his point he left opera behind for good. He had made his last statement."

It is rather mindboggling that Rossini never wrote another opera after Tell. In 1829 he was at the height of his powers and had the pick of opera houses and resources across Europe. He lived for another four decades, writing music that was occasionally exquisite (the Stabat Mater) but often banal (the sprawling collection of solo pieces Peches de vieillesse). He devoted most of his time to his kitchen, where he loved to invent new recipes. If nothing else, Rossini was a devoted gourmand to the end.

And so William Tell remained the last word in his operatic legacy. Noseda points out its themes are especially relevant this year - "in Scotland and anywhere in the world where self-rule, liberty and justice are important concerns".

He stops short of drawing direct comparisons between medieval Switzerland and 21st century Scotland (who, for example, would be the present-day counterparts of Mathilde and Arnold?) but is fervent in his faith the opera's moral message will transcend its length and frankly unremarkable passages.

"We should always pay attention to opera," he says. "These great works can speak to the hearts and minds of contemporary audiences with the same freshness as they did 200 years ago. William Tell is the kind of epic tale that we can learn from."

Gianandrea Noseda and the Teatro Regio Torino give a concert performance of Rossini's William Tell at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on Tuesday, August 26

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