After an hiatus of 85 years, last fall the Met brought back Rossini’s William Tell in its original French version. Previous performances of the opera by the company were done in German! and Italian. One of the main reasons for Tell’s infrequent stagings is its demanding tenor role, Arnold. This part was first sung by the renowned French tenor Adolphe Nourrit. He negotiated the role’s high tessitura by using mixed voice and falsetto. This was the technique used by all the tenors of the first third of the 19th century. It explains the profusion of seemingly impossible high notes for tenor in the operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. This practice ended with the engagement by the Paris Opera of Gilbert Duprez in October 1836. He sang the high C from the ‘chest’; he had learned this technique in Italy. Rossini hated it, but the public demanded it and that’s been the norm ever since.
Once you decide that Arnold has to be sung with its high notes from the chest, the type of tenor needed changes from a lyric to a tenore di forza. Consider three of the tenors who sang this opera at the Met between 1894 and 1931: Francesco Tamagno (the first Otello), Giovanni Martinelli, and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. The last two also noted Otellos.
Recently a couple of bel canto tenors have added Arnold to their repertoires. I’ll look at the few tenors now active who are, or think they are, up to the challenges Arnold presents. Specifically, I’ll present most of the first scene of Act 4 which is little more than an aria and cabaletta for the tenor. Rossini wrote the opera to a French text and Tell is considered a precursor to French grand opera, nevertheless it more closely resembles an Italian work than a French opera; this scene is particularly Italian.
The met presented Tell eight times during its recent run of the opera. In seven of these Bryan Hymel sang Arnold. He seems to be mounting a career singing operas that few other tenors want to tackle. ‘Ne m’abandonne point, espoir de la vengeance… Asile héréditaire…Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance’ are the first words of the recitative, aria, and cabaletta. I’ll shorten them to ‘Asile héréditaire’. Basically, Arnold is saying, “I’m hopeful, now let’s get the bad guys. Hymel fights his way through the scene, emerging still upright. This music occurs about 3 hours into the opera during which the tenor has been tossing out high notes like beads at Mardi Gras. Hitting all the notes here without suffering a pulmonary hemorrhage is a serious accomplishment. Hymel sounds is round though somewhat tight. But he does a credible job. Bryan Hymel Asile héréditaire
John Osborn sang Arnold at the Met’s recent run just one time. I suspect he was the cover for all the performances and was rewarded for standing by with one guaranteed performance. I first heard him more than 10 years ago and thought he was going to be the next great tenorino. But things didn’t work out that way. He has had a successful career, but his sound is now somewhat frayed though he’s not yet 45. He get’s all the notes out, but his voice is just too small for the role. He has recently moved to bigger roles like Pollione in Bellini’s Norma, which I think is a mistake. John Osborn Asile héréditaire
Another tenor whose voice is too small for Arnold is Juan Diego Florez. He somewhat compensates for his lack of vocal heft with his blazing high notes. Thus, he can sing the role with ease, but his sound is not powerful enough to make the effect that modern listeners expect from Arnold, certainly not in a big house like the Met. Juan Diego Florez Asile héréditaire
A tenor who has all the requirements for this most demanding of tenor roles is the American Michael Spyres. Spyres has been singing almost all the killer bel canto and French grand opera parts for a number of years, and doing so very impressively. For some mysterious reason known only to Euterpe or Saint Cecilia, the Met has not engaged him though a lesser string of tenors have come and gone since he emerged as a figura on the operatic scene. His voice has darkened since I first wrote about him six years ago; he’s probably now a spinto tenor. I think is reading of this scene is the best among the four currently active singers presented here. He phrases the aria with delicacy and has the needed high notes and the big sound required. Michael Spyres Asile héréditaire
If you want to hear this music sung to perfection, listen to the late Nicolai Gedda’s recording of it. Of course, this is a studio recording not a live performance as are all the examples above. Nevertheless, it’s a grand slam home run. Nicolai Gedda Asile héréditaire