The town of Altdorf, where much of Rossini's William Tell is set, has a monument to the legendary Swiss patriot.
ACT ONE: The action takes place in medieval Switzerland at a time when much of the country is controlled by Austria. William Tell is a respected Swiss patriot, opposed to Austrian rule. The opera begins on the shores of Lake Lucerne, where a triple wedding celebration is underway. The people in this part of the country are beginning to resist the Austrian occupation, and Rossini's music includes choral and ballet numbers that emphasize the importance of Swiss culture and traditions.
A revered local elder named Melcthal is presiding over the marriage ceremony. He's opposed to the Austrians but, ironically, Melcthal's own son, Arnold, is in love with an Austrian princess, Mathilde. When Tell urges Arnold to champion the Swiss cause, Arnold is torn between love and patriotism.
Melcthal blesses the three couples, and the festivities include an archery tournament, won by Tell's son, Jemmy. But things turn dark when a herdsman named Leuthold rushes in frantically. He caught an Austrian soldier attacking his daughter, and killed the man. Now the Austrians are after him, and he appeals for help. The only way out is to cross the lake, but there's a storm approaching, making the waters treacherous. Only Tell volunteers to man the ferry and row Leuthold to safety.
The Austrians arrive too late to catch Leuthold. They demand to know who helped him to escape, but no one speaks up. Enraged, the Austrians prepare to sack the village, and Rodolphe, the Austrian governor's henchman, takes Melcthal as a hostage.
ACT TWO: From the heights overlooking Lake Lucerne, in the evening, a hunting chorus is heard, along with villagers singing a Swiss folk song. Melcthal's son Arnold is alone with Mathilde. The two are deeply in love, and Arnold is determined to be with her. He decides that to be worthy of Mathilde, he may have to side with the Austrians.
Tell and his friend Walter Furst, another Swiss patriot, see the lovers together. In a thrilling trio, one of Rossini's finest numbers, they try to persuade Arnold to stay with his own people. In the process, they break the news that his father, Melcthal, has been murdered by the Austrians.
Local men begin to assemble, gathering to swear allegiance to the Swiss cause. As the day breaks, there's a drum roll and the repeated cry, "To arms!"
ACT THREE: Arnold and Mathilde are alone in a chapel garden in the Swiss town of Altdorf. With his father dead at the hands of the Austrians, Arnold knows he can no longer stay with her, and the two say their goodbyes.
The scene changes to the Altdorf square. Gesler, the Austrian governor, has ordered festivities to celebrate 100 years of Austrian rule. The villagers are hostile, and things grow even more tense when Gesler orders some Swiss women to dance with the leering, Austrian soldiers.
Tell refuses to pay homage to Gesler. When someone recognizes him as the man who helped Leuthold escape from Austrian soldiers, Gesler has Tell arrested. And when Tell orders his son Jemmy to relay the signal to start the Swiss rebellion, Gesler has Jemmy taken into custody, as well.
Gesler then initiates the incident that cemented the legend of William Tell. He orders Tell to take up his crossbow, and shoot an arrow through an apple placed on Jemmy's head. Tell expresses his defiance in one of Rossini's greatest arias. Then he draws his bow, and hits the apple. But he also declares that his second arrow was intended for Gesler himself, and Tell is quickly bound and taken away. Mathilde intervenes, demanding that Jemmy be released into her care. She also says she'll use her influence to have Tell released. But Gesler gives orders for Tell to be imprisoned in the notorious dungeons of Kussnacht.
ACT FOUR: At Melcthal's family home, Arnold plans to avenge his father's death. With Tell in prison, Arnold also knows that it's up to him to lead the Swiss revolt. He's joined by patriots from all the nearby states, and leads the rebels to a cache of weapons hidden away by Tell and his father.
The opera concludes on a mountainous shoreline of Lake Lucerne. Mathilde is there, along with Jemmy and Tell's wife Hedwige, who is looking for news of her husband. Jemmy lights the lantern to signal the uprising. On the opposite shore, Tell is with his Austrian captors in a boat. They cut his bonds so he can help with the crossing, but he escapes, and bravely crosses the stormy waters himself.
When Tell lands, he quickly hunts down Gesler and kills him. As Altdorf is liberated, the army of patriots gathers under clearing skies. Arnold sings a tribute to his dead father, and the opera ends with a hymn to nature and liberty.