Programme Notes

A Night at the Opera: Programme Notes by Terry Robbins

April 9, 2018

William Tell Overture | Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

Portrait of Gioachino Rossini

Talk about going out with a bang.

Guillaume Tell (William Tell), the opera that was to provide the world with one of the most popular and frequently performed overtures in history, was the last of Rossini’s 39 operas and marked his retirement from the genre at the early age of 37. In fact, it almost marked his retirement from composing in general, as he wrote only a small number of pieces during the rest of his life.

Rossini had achieved considerable fame and wealth with his operas, having composed 28 in a remarkable eight-year period from 1812 to 1819, and in the early 1820s he moved to Paris to write for the Théâtre Italien and the Paris Opéra. In 1826 he was awarded a government contract to write five operas for the latter theatre, and Guillaume Tell, in 1829, was the first. Unfortunately, it was also the last – Rossini’s contract was cancelled following the July Revolution in 1830.

Various reasons for Rossini’s sudden retirement and return to Italy in 1829 have been suggested: depression following the death of his mother in 1827; the Parisian success enjoyed by his operatic rival Meyerbeer; the political situation; a serious health issue; even laziness following years of intense activity. He did return to Paris with his second wife in 1855, indulging his passions for food and cooking and entertaining leading figures in the music and arts worlds.

Based on the 1804 Friedrich Schiller drama Wilhelm Tell and with a libretto by de Jouy and Bis, the opera is set in 14th-century Switzerland and deals with the Swiss fight for independence from the Austrian Hapsburgs. In the most famous incident the title character is forced by the Austrian governor Gessler to shoot an apple from his son’s head; Tell eventually kills Gessler and starts the Swiss revolt.

Premiered on August 3, 1829, the opera was a decided success despite its enormous length, the French Grand Opera style’s need for extended ballets and spectacle extending the performance time to six hours. Almost immediately extensive cuts were made for subsequent performances, but the opera is still rarely performed today.

The overture is also notable for its length – at 12 minutes it’s the longest of Rossini’s opera overtures – and has been regarded as almost an early form of orchestral tone poem; Berlioz, not exactly a big fan of Rossini, even called it “a symphony in four parts.”

Engraving of a heroic William Tell leaping over the heads of assailantsThe opening Prelude: Dawn features the cellos and double basses; quiet timpani rolls suggest the sound of distant thunder, leading to the second section The Storm. The calm following the storm is represented by the third section Pastorale, featuring the Alpine horn tune Ranz des vaches, played by Swiss herdsmen as they drove their cattle to pasture. Finally, a rousing gallop drives the overture to its famous conclusion.

The overture’s enduring popularity is due in large part not to any initial or consequent success of the opera but to the extensive use of the overture’s music in popular 20th-century culture. Spike Jones and his City Slickers had a go at it in 1948. Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig have all performed their on-screen antics in Disney animation and Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons to the accompaniment of the William Tell.

If there is one enduring association above all others, however, it is the result of the use of the final section of the overture as the theme music for both the radio and television versions of the classic American Western series The Lone Ranger from the early 1930s through the late 1950s. This has made it one of the most easily-identifiable pieces of classical music for the layman; indeed, such is the immediate association with the radio and television programs that in 1962 Jack Guinn of the Denver Post defined an intellectual as “a person who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of The Lone Ranger.

Well, that rules me out.

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear – the William Tell Overture rides again  …

Gianni Schicchi | Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

Photo of PucciniFor quite some time Puccini had toyed with the idea of writing a set of three contrasting one-act operas that could be performed together in a single evening. His publisher Ricordi wasn’t too thrilled with the prospect, however, and as Puccini also had trouble finding suitable source material the project remained on the back burner.

Il trittico finally began to take shape with the completion of the verismo opera Il tabarro (The Cloak) in 1916. The religious all-female opera Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) followed shortly after, and the triptych was completed with the composition of the comic opera Gianni Schicchi in 1917–18. The three operas were premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on December 14, 1918, with Gianni Schicchi – the last of the three performances – receiving by far the most enthusiastic reviews.

After similar receptions at the 1919 Rome and 1920 London premieres, there was growing pressure to drop the two less successful works. Puccini was originally opposed to the operas being performed individually, but later in 1920 he did give permission for the Royal Opera House in London to drop Suor Angelica; he was quite annoyed when he learned that they had also dropped Il tabarro. The three are now rarely performed together, and are more commonly paired individually with one-act operas by other composers, especially Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.

Gianni Schicchi is based on an incident in Dante’s 1320 Divine Comedy; the libretto is by Giovacchino Forzano.

A painting of the relatives of Buoso Donati gathered in a richly appointed bedchamber around a table, stage right. In the bed, located at stage left, is the body of Buoso. The relatives are clustered around a table, stage left, reading and exclaiming.The action takes place in Florence in 1299, and involves the forging of a will. Buoso Donati has died, and his relatives, gathered to mourn his passing, are really more interested in learning the contents of his will. Rumors that Buoso has left everything to a monastery cause concern and precipitate a frantic search for the document. Rinuccio, confident that his uncle has left him plenty of money, asks to be allowed to marry Lauretta, daughter of Gianni Schicchi, a lower-class newcomer.

The relatives’ worst fears are realized; Buoso has indeed bequeathed his fortune to the monastery.

Rinuccio suggests that Schicchi advise them what to do, but this is not well received by the rest, who sneer at Schicchi’s humble origins and now say that marriage to the daughter of such a peasant is out of the question. When Schicchi and his daughter arrive Schicchi, realizing the situation, says he will have nothing to do with such people. Lauretta begs him to change his mind with the famous aria O mio babbino caro (O my beloved father) and Schicchi agrees to look at the will. He forms an idea.

Realizing that only those present know that Buoso is dead, he moves the body to another room, and when the doctor Spinelloccio knocks at the door hides behind the bed curtains and pretends to be Buoso. He’s feeling better, he says, and asks the doctor to return that evening. Having convinced the doctor that Buoso is still alive, Schicchi will disguise himself as Buoso and create a new will. The relatives agree to leave the disposition of the most valuable possessions – the mule, the house and the mills – to Schicchi, though they all try to bribe him. Before going any further, Schicchi reminds everyone of the grave punishment for falsifying a will: exile from Florence and the loss of a hand.

When Schicchi dictates the new will to the notary he orders that the mule, house and mills be left to “my devoted friend Gianni Schicchi.” The astonished relatives can do nothing while the notary is present, especially in view of the possible penalties that discovery of the deception will bring. Lauretta and Rinuccio, however, are delighted, as with Schicchi now being able to provide a dowry there is nothing to stop their marriage. The relatives are chased out of what is now Schicchi’s house.

Moved by the sight of the two lovers Schicchi addresses the audience, saying that no better use could be found for Buoso’s wealth. Dante may have condemned him to Hell for his actions, but Schicchi asks the audience to forgive him in light of “extenuating circumstances.”

The characters Gianni Schicchi and Buoso Donati were both real-life people, with Dante’s work (and consequently the opera) based on an actual 13th-century incident in Florence. Dante apparently had a reason for his derogatory treatment of Schicchi: Dante’s wife Gemma was a member of the Donati family, and Dante himself – a pure Florentine – loathed members of the lower class.

–Terry Robbins

Orchestra Toronto will perform A Night at the Opera in collaboration with Essential Opera on April 22, 2018, 3:00, p.m. at the George Weston Recital Hall, 5040 Yonge St., Toronto.

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