William Tell

William Tell

Tell, William, legendary Swiss patriot. According to legend, Tell was a native of Uri, one of the Swiss forest cantons. Gessler, the canton's Austrian bailiff, decreed that Swiss citizens must remove their hats before his hat, which he had posted on a stake in the canton's largest town. Tell refused and as punishment was ordered to shoot an apple off his small son's head. Although he succeeded, he was held prisoner by Gessler when he revealed that had he failed, he planned to kill Gessler with an arrow he had hidden on his person. Tell escaped and eventually shot Gessler from ambush at Küssnacht, thus setting off the revolt that ousted the bailiff on Jan. 1, 1308. While there is no valid proof of Tell's existence, the legend represents a distorted account of events that resulted (1291) in the formation of the Everlasting League between the cantons of Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden. Schiller's popular drama Wilhelm Tell is based on the legend; Rossini's opera William Tell is based on Schiller's drama.
Guillaume Tell (William Tell) is an opera in four acts by Gioachino Rossini to a French libretto by Etienne de Jouy and Hippolyte Bis, based on Friedrich Schiller's play Wilhelm Tell. It was first performed at the Paris Opéra on August 3, 1829. Based on the legend of William Tell, this opera was Rossini's last, even though the composer lived for nearly forty more years.

The opera's length, roughly four hours of music, and casting requirements, such as the high range required for the tenor part, have contributed to the difficulty of producing the work. When it is performed, it is often heavily cut. Performances have been given in both French and Italian.

Other, political, concerns have contributed to the varying fortunes of the work. In Italy, because the work glorified a revolutionary figure against authority, the opera encountered difficulties with the Italian censors, and the number of productions in Italy was limited. The Teatro San Carlo produced the opera in 1833, but then did not give another production for around 50 years. The first Venice production, at the Teatro La Fenice, was not until 1856. By contrast, in Vienna, in spite of censorship issues there, the Vienna Court Opera gave 422 performances over the years 1830-1907.


Today, the opera is remembered mostly for its famous overture. Its high-energy finale is particularly familiar through its use in the American radio and television shows of The Lone Ranger. Several portions of the overture were used prominently in the films A Clockwork Orange and The Eagle Shooting Heroes. The overture falls into four parts, each segueing into the next:


Role Voice type Premiere Cast, August 3, 1829
(Conductor: François Antoine Habeneck)
Guillaume Tell baritone Henri-Bernard Dabadie
Hedwige, his wife mezzo-soprano Mlle Mori
Jemmy, his son soprano Louise-Zulme Dabadie
Mathilde, a Hapsburg princess soprano Laure Cinti-Damoreau
Arnold Melcthal tenor Adolphe Nourrit
Melcthal, his father bass Bonel
Gesler, the Austrian Governor
of the cantons of Uri and Schwyz
bass Alexandre Prévost
Walter Furst bass Nicolas Levasseur
Ruodi, a fisherman tenor Alexis Dupont
Leuthold, a shepherd bass Ferdinand Prévôt
Rodolphe, Captain of Gesler's guard tenor Jean-Étienne Massol
A hunter baritone Beltrame Pouilley
Peasants, shepherds, knights, pages, ladies, soldiers


Place: Switzerland
Time: 14th century

Prior to the start of the opera, Arnold, son of the Swiss leader Melcthal, has rescued Mathilde, an Austrian princess, from drowning. In spite of the political situation, Arnold and Mathilde have fallen in love.

Act 1

It is the day of the Shepherd Festival, in May, near Lake Lucerne. Per tradition, Melchtal blesses the couples at the celebration. However, Arnold excludes himself from this privilege, as he is torn between his love for his country and his love for Mathilde. Horn fanfares interrupt the festival, and herald the arrival of Gesler, the Austrian Governor, whom the Swiss detest. Leuthold then enters, pursued by Gesler's forces. One of Gesler's soldiers has attempted to assault Leuthold's daughter, and Leuthold killed the soldier to defend her. He wishes to escape, and the lake is the only route. William Tell offers his assistance. Gesler’s guards arrive, led by Rodolphe. Leuthold manages to escape with the help of Tell, but as reprisal, Gesler's guards take Melcthal prisoner.

Act 2

In a valley by a lake, Arnold and Mathilde meet and again pledge their love. Tell and Walter arrive, and inform Arnold that Gesler has ordered the execution of Melcthal. Arnold vows vengeance. Arnold, Tell and Walter swear an oath to liberate Switzerland. They inspire the cantons to unite in this quest.

Act 3

At the market-place in Altdorf, the day is the hundredth anniversary of Austrian rule in Switzerland. In commemoration, Gesler has had his hat placed on top of a pole and the Swiss are ordered to pay homage to the hat. Tell arrives with his son Jemmy. Tell refuses to honour the hat. Gesler recognises Tell as the man who saved Leuthold, and wants to punish him somehow. He orders Tell to shoot an apple from Jemmy’s head, in the hope that Tell will harm his son. Tell is successful in piercing the apple, and tells Gesler that had the shot failed, he would have used his next arrow against him. Gesler orders Tell to be arrested.

Act 4

A Swiss rebel army arrives, and battle ensues. Tell kills Gesler with an arrow through the heart. The Swiss emerge victorious. Mathilde and Arnold, secure in their love, reunite at the close.

Noted arias

  • "Asile héréditaire" (Arnold)
  • "Sois immobile" (Tell)
  • "Sombre forêt" (Mathilde)

Selected recordings

  • Myto 3 MCD 001.216 (1956 broadcast, with cuts, sung in Italian): Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Gianni Jaia, Giuseppe Modesti, Ivan Jardi, Jolanda Mancini, Giannella Borelli, Antonio Pirino, Sergio Nicolai, Enrico Campi, Anita Cerquetti, Tommaso Soley, Sergio Liliani; Chorus and Orchestra of Radio Italiana, Milan; Mario Rossi, conductor
  • Great Opera Performances 715-CD 3 (1965 performance, sung in Italian): Giangiacomo Guelfi, Leyla Gencer, Gianni Raimondi, Leyla Bersiani, Annamaria Rota, Enrico Campi, Paolo Washington, Bruno Marangoni, Pietro Bottazzo, Silvano Pagliuca, Mario Guggia; Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro San Carlo, Naples; Fernando Previtali, conductor
  • EMI Classics 7 69951 2 (sung in French): Gabriel Bacquier, Montserrat Caballé, Nicolai Gedda, Mady Mesplé, Jocelyne Taillon, Louis Hendrikx, Kolos Kovacs, Gwynne Howell, Charles Burles, Nicholas Christou, Ricardo Cassinelli, Leslie Fyson; Ambrosian Opera Chorus; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Lamberto Gardelli, conductor
  • Decca Classics 437 154-2 (sung in Italian): Sherill Milnes, Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti, Della Jones, Elizabeth Connell, Ferruccio Mazzoli, Nicolai Ghiaurov, John Tomlinson Cesar Antonio Suarez, Richard van Allan, Piero de Palma; John Noble; Ambrosian Opera Chorus; National Philharmonic Orchestra; Riccardo Chailly, conductor
  • Philips 422 391-2: Giorgio Zancanaro, Cheryl Studer, Chris Merritt, Giorgio Surjan, Franco de Grandis, Amelia Felle, Luciana d'Intino, Vittorio Terranova, Alberto Noli, Luigi Roni, Ernesto Gavazzi, Ernesto Panariello; Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Milan; Riccardo Muti, conductor


Search another word or see William Tellon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015 Dictionary.com, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature