Guillaume Tell, opéra in four acts, libretto by Étienne de Jouy and Hippolyte-Louis-Florent Bis, was given its first performance at the Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique on the 3 August 1829
The original cast was: Adolphe Nourrit (Arnold), Henri-Bernard Dabadie (Guillaume Tell), Nicholas-Prosper Levasseur (Walter), Bonnel (Melcthal), Alex Prévost (Gesler), Jean-Étienne Massol (Rodolphe), Ferdinand Prévost (Leuthold), Alexis Dupont (Pêcheur), Laure Cinti-Damoreau (Mathilde), Louise-Zulme Dabadie (Jemmy), Mori (Hedwige). The autograph scores are in Paris, at the Conservatoire and at the Opéra. The story is taken from Friedrich Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell (1804). Rossini also prepared a three-act version of this opera, probably in 1831.
The story opens in a village in the Swiss Canton of Uri: just a few rustic chalets among the mountains, near a rushing river. On one side we see William Tell, in pensive mood, with his wife Hedwige and his young son Jemmy. Further off, a fisherman is singing a song and a little group of villagers, peasants and huntsmen are getting ready to celebrate a triple wedding: three couples of shepherds and their brides. Whilst he prepares to go and bless them, the wise old shepherd Melcthal urges his son, Arnold, to think seriously about getting married himself soon. Arnold reacts angrily to this. Secretly, in fact, he is in love with the Hapsburg Princess Mathilde, who lives at the Court of Gesler, the Austrian governor. He fell in love with her after saving her life in an avalanche, but it is a hopeless passion because of the difference of rank that divides them. Mathilde, furthermore, is too near Gesler, the hated tyrant who oppresses the Swiss. In the distance Arnold hears the sound of Gesler’s hunting horns, but whilst he is trying to slip away in the hopes of meeting his beloved princess, he meets William Tell, who urges him to join the rebels intent upon freeing their country from the foreign yoke. Tell does not know anything about Arnold’s secret love affair and so cannot understand why the young man is so perturbed and why he has enrolled in the Austrian army; he tries to persuade him to be faithful to the Swiss ideals of patriotism and freedom. Arnold promises that, when the day dawns that they must fight for their freedom, he will join the rebel army. Then he goes off, unobserved. The wedding festivities begin and Melcthal exhorts the young couples to perpetuate the traditions of their ancestors through their children, whilst William, having once more cursed all tyrants, goes off to look for Arnold. The celebrations continue, the dancing begins and Jemmy, Tell’s young son, wins the crossbow shooting competition. The general rejoicings are, however, brusquely interrupted when pastor Leuthold runs in, waving the bloody axe with which he has just killed one of Gesler’s soldiers, who had been trying to carry off his daughter. Hotly pursued by the Governor’s soldiers, Leuthold is forced to cross the dangerous river to save himself. The fisherman refuses to ferry him across, and it is William Tell who offers to row him to the opposite bank. When the boat is disappearing into the distance the soldiers rush in, headed by Rodolphe, who tries in vain to discover who it is that has helped Leuthold. Melcthal, who orders the people not to give away the name of Leuthold’s rescuer, is arrested and dragged away.
At nightfall, whilst Gesler’s hunting horn resounds through a deep valley on the Lake of the Four Cantons, huntsmen and shepherds are returning home. Princess Mathilde knows that Arnold is following her; she loves him, too. As all Nature falls silent, she implores the moon to tell her where Arnold is. Soon the young man joins her and declares his love: he loves her so much that, unable to realize his dreams, he has decided to run away into foreign parts in search of death or oblivion. Mathilde encourages him to go away, win glory and fame, and come back victoriously to marry her. They promise to meet each other the following day, then Mathilde goes off whilst Arnold is surprised by William and Walter, who try to distract him from his amorous passion and incite him to patriotic fervour, revealing that his father Melcthal has been put to death by Gesler. Arnold, heartbroken, swears to fight the tyrant alongside his countrymen. The representatives of the various cantons gather together and William Tell leads them all in swearing an oath to free their country of its oppressors; dawn breaks, symbol of victory.
In an old, ruined chapel Arnold tells Mathilde that he wants to avenge his father. Although he loves her, he realizes that this new political situation threatens to separate them for ever. In despair, Mathilde begs him to save himself by running away, but Arnold is firm in his decision to defend his native land. Meanwhile distant echoes can be heard of a celebration organized by Gesler in the village of Altorf in honour of the Germanic Empire’s more than one hundred-year rule over the Swiss. Everyone is ordered to bow in token of humble submission to Gesler’s hat, which has been set up as a military trophy in the village square. During this ceremony William and his son Jemmy are brought before Gesler by the soldiers because both of them have refused to offer homage to the symbol. Seeing Tell, Rodolphe recognizes him as the man who helped Leuthold to escape: Gesler has him arrested and tells him that to save his own and his son’s life he must pass the test of the apple: that is, with his arrow he must pierce an apple placed on his son’s head. Whilst every bystander holds his breath, Tell embraces his child, telling him to stand quite still, and then he passes the test triumphantly to the great joy of the people. Overcome by the nervous stress of the trial, William falls to the ground, almost fainting, and another arrow falls out of the folds of his jacket: when Gesler demands an explanation William confesses that if he had missed his aim in the test, he would have fired this second arrow at Gesler. Gesler angrily orders Tell to be arrested again and condemns him to death. At this point Mathilde makes her presence felt by taking the boy under her protection, whilst William Tell is led off to die. The Swiss curse the tyrant Gesler.
Awaiting the moment of vengeance, Arnold has come to his father’s house. From offstage the Swiss are heard crying out for arms to free their hero, William Tell. Arnold knows where his father had hidden a cache of arms and leads his friends off to fight. The scene changes back to the Lake of the Four Cantons, over which thick storm clouds are gathering. A group of women try to restrain Tell’s wife, who wants to join her husband and son to die with them. But now Jemmy comes on, safe and sound, accompanied by Mathilde. Now the storm breaks, turning the lake into a maelstrom. Jemmy sets their house on fire to give the signal for the revolt to the inhabitants of all the neighbouring areas, whilst Hedwige implores God to save her husband’s life. William Tell is taken to the place of execution, but the storm overtakes the boat in which he is being transported and he manages to jump out onto a rock near the shore, pushing off the boat again with Gesler and his guards still on board. He embraces his wife and son and then takes up his crossbow to aim a deadly arrow at Gesler: the tyrant falls dead into the raging waters. Whilst everyone acclaims Tell, Arnold comes on to announce that Altorf has been liberated. The storm dies away, and the heavens resound to songs of victory and freedom.