The Swiss national hero Wilhelm Tell was a frequently-portrayed character in early nineteenth-century European theatres. Rossini’s opera is based for the most part on Friedrich Schiller’s play, but while Schiller’s ‘freedom fighter’ is transformed from a devoted family man to a political activist, Rossini’s Tell appears right from the start as the leader of the rebellion against the repressive Habsburg regime. This political intrigue is set against the backdrop of a love affair between the Swiss patriot Arnold Melcthal and the Habsburg princess Mathilde. The liberation of Switzerland and the death of the brutal governor Gesler are coupled with picturesque dark clouds hovering over romantic mountaintops. For his last opera Rossini composed what are surely his most demanding vocal parts, and while the apple-shooting scene is naturally one of the opera’s highlights, the grand overture has emerged as a favourite work of the concert podium.

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