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Teatro Regio hits the bullseye with rarely staged ‘William Tell’

BY ANDREW PATNER | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

The combination of firsts was enough to draw a large audience to one-off concert performance by an Italian opera company little-known in the United States.

The first performance in Chicago of Rossini’s last and grandest opera, “William Tell,” in Chicago in nearly 30 years — and that most recent one was presented in Lithuanian.

The first North American tour by the Teatro Regio Torino, the Royal Theatre of Turin, a storied company that gave the world premiere of Puccini’s “La boheme” in 1896 under Toscanini, and where Maria Callas and Giuseppe DiStefano tried their hands at directing when the Regio’s new theater opened in 1973.

Chicago as the first stop on the tour (Toronto; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and New York’s Carnegie Hall follow). The Harris Theater as a right-sized (1,525 seats) and acoustically excellent venue for it.

But it took an exciting and committed performance by conductor and music director Gianandrea Noseda, his fine orchestra, Claudio Fenoglio’s strong and flexible chorus and international and Italian vocal soloists, to hold the audience and its fierce attention Wednesday night for a full four hours (including two intermissions) and to draw a standing ovation of more than five minutes from them.

Of course “Tell” itself was the great draw. From its 12-minute overture — a revolutionary encapsulation of the story and themes of the whole opera immortalized in popular culture by “The Lone Ranger” and Spike Jones — to its overall great length to its apple-shooting scene to Rossini’s wide popularity to the rarity of its presentation, each city probably has enough buffs and curiosity seekers to fill a medium-sized house for it.

I saw the full work in its only modern major company staging in the U.S. at San Francisco Opera in 1992. That’s how rarely performed it is. Wednesday’s unique opportunity led to a last-minute, live radio broadcast by WFMT-FM that was also streamed on the Web around the world.

There were some caveats. With a clearly devoted audience and a set of one-time performances, there was no need to cut an hour of music — including cuts within musical numbers. And while Rossini was Italian, “Tell” was and is a French grand opera and so its composer created it, by commission, in structure, style, and language. While there are operas designed to be performed in more than one language, “Tell” is not one of them. And while this Italian libretto was a late 20th-century improvement used by Riccardo Muti in a famed 1988 La Scala production, the two languages not only sound differently, they are fitted to music in different ways.

But here we were, and that it was a concert performance and not a full staging was actually one of the concept’s advantages. For it put the orchestra at the center and, with English supertitles generously provided for this tour by the Packard Humanities Institute, allowed the audience both to appreciate the singing and drama and to be reminded of or introduced to Rossini’s sheer genius. This 1829 work thrilled and inspired Bellini, Berlioz and even Richard Wagner, who was able to discuss it with the composer in Paris 31 years later.

And Noseda in his seven years in Turin has brought this orchestra of largely young musicians to a very impressive level with strengths uniform throughout sections and with strong principal soloists from the cello to the winds to percussion. The four acts are a series of sound pictures and settings as well as vocal accompaniment and frame, and Noseda, if at times seeming as if he had an archery competition to race to, fully realized this at all times.

Singers fell into three categories — the international soloists in the leads, two or three supporting singers with appropriate power and style, and five or six singers not at the level of the rest. As the focus is so much on the leads, this inconsistency could be overlooked without artistic harm. In the title role, Italian baritone Luca Salsi summoned up the darkness and complexity of his recent Macbeth with Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the Verdi opera, and captured the Hans Sachs-like nature of his character, the legendary liberator of Switzerland from Austrian Habsburg oppression. The high and high-power tenor role is one of the major stumbling blocks to more frequent productions of “Tell.” American John Osborn has made the role of Arnold Melcthal — musically vibrant, dramaturgically hardly necessary — a specialty, and once he got rolling was a vivid presence in both duets and trios and in his great Act Four aria, drawing waves of cheers from the crowd.

American soprano Angela Meade as the Austrian princess Matiilde was consistent with previous roles in combining a beautiful, rich, and strong voice with a hard to explain murkiness and soft edges at times. Still, especially in duets and ensembles, she provided much that was remarkable and not only powerful. Of the remaining eight cast members, only basses Marco Spotti as Tell’s good friend Walter, and Paolo Maria Orecchia as a much put-upon shepherd, were fully ready for prime time. The apple split atop Tell’s sons head could be imagined and “heard” if not seen.

Mark this overall as a bullseye for Noseda, the Regio and its Chicago presenter, the Harris.

Andrew Patner is critic-at-large for WFMT-FM.