Guillaume Tell (William Tell) Synopsis

The Story of Rossini's Last Opera, Guillaume Tell

UK -The Royal Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's Guillaume Tell
Robbie Jack - Corbis/Getty Images

Guilliaume Tell, also known as William Tell, by Gioachino Rossini, premiered on August 3, 1829, at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris, ​France. The four-act opera takes place in 13th century ​​Switzerland near Lake Lucerne.

Guillaume Tell, ACT 1

On the day of the Shepherd Festival, the village peasants prepare a several picturesque Swiss chalet for three newly weds. Down on the shore, Ruodi sings a beautiful love song from his fishing boat, while William Tell stands apart from the crowd. His thoughts are clearly different from those of the villagers, as his bored and listless appearance contrasts highly against the townsfolk merry and joyous nature. William Tell's wife, Hedwige, and his son, Jeremy, listen to the fisherman's song and comment on its meaning. The hustle and bustle of the village comes to a halt when the ranz des vaches, a melody played on horns by Swiss alpine herdsmen, is heard bellowing from the hills, signaling the arrival of Melchtal, an elder of the canton. Melchtal greets Hedwige, and she asks him to bless the newly married couples at the celebration. Melchtal is happy to oblige. Arnold, Melchtal's son, seems uncomfortable. Now that he is of marrying age, he tells his father he will not participate in the activities of the festival. The villagers join in the chorus and sing a song of love, marriage, and work. William Tell invites Melchtal and his son to their home. As they depart, Melchtal rebukes his son's decision to not marry.

As they make their way to William Tell's home, Arnold is distraught by his father's rebuke. He explains his reason for not marrying. Many months ago, while serving with Austrian military forces, Arnold rescued a beautiful woman, Mathilde, from an avalanche. Because of his commitment to the army, he was unable to stay with Mathilde. Since returning home, Arnold possesses great contempt with the Austrian military. Just as he finishes his story, another sounding of horns is heard in the distance. The Austrian governor, Gesler, as arrived along with his court. The Swiss citizens hold just as contempt for the Austrian ruler as Arnold does. Because he and his father are supposed to greet the governor, Arnold starts heading for the door. William Tell steps in front of Arnold and tries to persuade him into joining a rebellion against the Austrian rulers. Once again, Arnold is torn between his commitment to the "fatherland" and his love for Mathilde. Arnold resolves himself to join William Tell and the rebellion and plans to confront the governor immediately. However, William Tell, happy to have converted Arnold to his cause, convinces him to wait until after the celebrations and festivities.

As the celebrations begin, Melchtal approaches each couple and blesses their marriage. Afterward, the villagers and couples sing and dance, giving way to an archery contest. Though many contestants join, it is William Tell's son, Jeremy, who wins the contest, owing it to his father's skills. It was with his first shot, too. As his victory is cheered and celebrated, he spies Leuthold, a shepherd, stumbling into the village. Leuthold has killed one of Governor Gesler's men because he was forcing himself upon Leuthold's daughter. Trembling out of fear, Leuthold is fleeing for his life. Ruodi, the fisherman, refuses Leuthold's request to take him across Lake Lucerne, because the lake's current and jagged rocks on the other shore may cause his boat to sink. William Tell arrives at the boat dock searching for Arnold, but see's Leuthold trying frantically to escape. He agrees to take Leuthold onto the water. After they embark, Gesler's soldiers arrive seeking Leuthold. Annoyed by the villager's excitement and encouragement of Leuthold's escape, Rodolphe, the lead guard, begins asking questions. Melchtal orders the villagers to keep quiet about the man who aided in Leuthold's escape, and he is taken into captivity by Gesler's men. Hedwige and the rest of the village do not fear for William Tell because of his fine archery abilities.

Guillaume Tell, ACT 2

As night approaches and the sun sinks below the surrounding hills, a hunting party, deep within the forest, takes their leave as the shepherds make their way home for the evening. When the sounds of the governor's horns are heard, the shepherds exit the clearing. However, Mathilde stays behind thinking she has seen Arnold. Her eyes did not deceive her. Arnold enters the clearing and the two embrace. Agreeing that they both love each other dearly, they outline the problems and obstacles they will encounter. When William Tell and Walter approach and Mathilde quickly departs. William and Walter question Arnold, asking him how he can love the Austrian woman. Angry that they were spying on him, Arnold abandons the rebellion and decides to fight for the Austrians. Walter tells Arnold that the Austrians executed his father, Melchtal, and Arnold, again, swears vengeance against the Austrian governor. As their passion against the Austrians stirs, they are joined by rebels from neighboring cantons. Men from Unterwalden, Schwyz, and Uri meet with William Tell, Walter, and Arnold, and it is decided that they will fight for Switzerland's independence or die. The men craft their plans for properly equipping themselves with the most useful weapons as well as when they will make their strike.

Guillaume Tell, ACT 3

The next day, Arnold meets with Mathilde in an abandoned chapel in Altdorf. Telling her of his father's death, he states he will not battle for Austria. Instead, he will fight with Switzerland to avenge his father's execution. Mathilde's heart is broken, but she understands Arnold's plight. Both lovers say their farewells and depart the chapel knowing their relationship will never work.

Meanwhile, within Altdorf's market, Gesler and his men celebrate the 100th anniversary of Austria's rule over Switzerland. Gesler has even placed his hat at the top of a pole, and his men force the Swiss townsfolk to pay homage to it every time they pass by. Gesler, unhappy with the celebration, orders his men to put together a group of dancers and singers. As dancing and singing commence, soldiers spot William Tell not paying homage to the hat. Rodolphe steps in and instantly recognizes him as Leuthold's abettor. He quickly orders the guards to arrest him. They hesitate at his command due to William Tell's renowned archery skills. However, after a strong scolding, they finally start to make their way to William Tell. Jeremy defiantly stays next to his father's side despite William Tell's insistence. Rodolphe takes notice of Jeremy's devotion to his father. Instead, he orders his men to apprehend Jeremy and crafts a plan. He instructs William Tell to shoot an apple placed on his son's head. Should he refuse, both he and his son will be sentenced to death. At first, William is outraged, but Jeremy encourages his father to complete the task. William Tell orders Jeremy to stay completely still. He retrieves a bow from one of the soldiers and sneakily draws out two arrows from the quiver. As the townsfolk look upon the scene in horror, William Tell calmly draws back his arrow and shoots it directly into the apple. Jeremy and the villagers rejoice, which makes Gesler furious. Because of the commotion, William Tell's second arrow is accidentally revealed. Gesler asks him why he has the second arrow, and without hesitation, William Tell replies that he intended to use it to kill Gesler. Within an instant, Gesler's men arrest both William and Jeremy, and they are sentenced to execution.

Mathilde, who has been observing the entire situation, steps forward and demands Jeremy's life be saved in the name of the emperor since no child should be executed. As Jeremy is let go to Mathilde, Gesler announces his intentions for William Tell. Gesler is going to take him across to the other side of Lake Lucerne, where he will be executed by being fed to the reptiles who inhabit the lake. Rodolphe urges for a different plan as the approaching storm will make passage across the lake highly treacherous. Gesler gives no heed to Rodolphe and announces that William Tell's expert nautical skills will allow them to cross the lake safely. Gesler order's William to pilot the ship and they make their way down to the shore.

Guillaume Tell, ACT 4

After learning of William Tell's arrest, Arnold nearly loses faith in their cause. He pays a visit to his father's house, where he laments his death. His passion for vengeance is re-ignited, and moments later, a large group of rebels meets outside of the house. Arnold greets them and shows them the large cache of weapons his father and William Tell gathered. As the men take up arms, Arnold determination increases greatly and the men set out to free William Tell and the town of Altdorf from Austrian rule.

As the day passes, Tell's wife, Hedwige, paces up and down the lake's shore where the villagers have assembled. Hoping to meet with Gelser, Hedwige is resolved to beg for her husband's life. Jeremy and Mathilda arrive, and after reuniting with her son, she asks for Mathilde's help. Jeremy tells his mother that William was sentenced to death and that Gesler and his men are taking him across the lake. Leuthold enters with news that the storm has blown the ship towards a dangerous outcrop of jagged rocks. He tells them he believes that Gesler allowed William Tell to be unchained in order to steer the boat.

Moments later, a boat is spotted. The moment it gets to shore, William Tell quickly jumps off of it pushes the boat back out to the water. William sees his house burning in the distance, but Jeremy quickly explains why. The rebels needed a signal to fight, but before setting fire to the house, Jeremy wisely removed his father's bow and arrows. After he hands the weapon to his father, Gesler and his men make it to shore. In that instant, William Tell shoots an arrow directly into Gesler's heart, killing him instantly. The rebels make it to shore and William tells them of Gesler's death. However, he tells them that Altdorf still stands. Just then, Arnold and his men arrive celebrating their victory over Altdorf's Austrian rulers. Mathilde rushes to his side, proclaiming her love for him. She tells him that she renounces Austria and will join him in their fight for liberty. As the clouds part and the bright sun shines on the picturesque scene, the ranz des vaches bellows from the surrounding hills again.

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