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Guillaume 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 Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique 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 William Tell Overture, with its famous finale, is a major part of the concert and recording repertoire.

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.

Political concerns have also 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 Carlomarker produced the opera in 1833, but then did not give another production for around 50 years. The first Venice production, at the Teatro La Fenicemarker, 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:

  • Prelude - a slow passage starting with a passage for five cellos
  • Storm - a dynamic section played by full orchestra
  • Ranz des Vaches (call to the dairy cows) - featuring the Cor anglais
  • Finale - ultra-dynamic "cavalry charge" galop heralded by horn and trumpets and played by full orchestra.


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 Habsburg princess soprano Laure Cinti-Damoreau
Arnold Melchtal tenor Adolphe Nourrit
Melchtal, his father bass Bonel
Gesler, the Austrianmarker Governor
of the cantons of Urimarker and Schwyzmarker
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: Switzerlandmarker
Time: fourteenth century

Prior to the start of the opera, Arnold, son of the Swiss leader Melchtal, 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 Melchtal 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 Melchtal. 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)
  • "Corriam Voliam" (Arnold)
  • "Sois immobile" (Tell)
  • "Sombre forêt" (Mathilde)

Selected recordings


  1. Kirby, Percival R., "Rossini's Overture to William Tell" (April 1952). Music & Letters, 33 (2): pp. 132-140.

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