André-Modeste GRÉTRY (1741-1813)
Guillaume Tell (1791) [87.00]
Marc Laho (tenor) – Tell; Anne-Catherine Gillet (soprano) – Madame Tell; Lionel Lhote (bass) – Gessler; Liesbeth Devos (soprano) – Marie; Stefan Cifolelli (tenor) – Young Melktal; Natacha Kowalski (mezzo) – Young Tell; Patrick Delcour (baritone) – Old Melktal; Roger Joakim (baritone) – Traveller
Wallonia Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Claudio Scimone
rec. Liège Opera, June 2013
no extras
DYNAMIC DVD 37694 [87.00]
The enterprising Opéra Royal de Wallonie follow up their highly imaginative revival of Franck’s Stradella with another work by a Belgian composer in the shape of Grétry’s William Tell. In fact Grétry left the Austrian Netherlands - as they were then - early in his career and settled permanently in France during the days of the ancien régime. There he found favour with Marie Antoinette with the series of comic operas such as Richard Coeur de Lion on which his fame chiefly rests. After the Revolution he adapted his style to the new milieu with its emphasis on the ideals of liberty and freedom, and William Tell was premièred in Paris in 1791. It continued in the repertoire until 1828, when Rossini’s much grander treatment of the same subject effectively eclipsed it permanently until the current revival, in much the same way - but even more comprehensively - as his Barber of Seville had obscured Paisiello’s.

Part of the reason for this neglect is not hard to seek. Although Grétry may have adapted his plots to the Revolutionary ideal with this tale of national liberation from tyranny, it is possible to doubt that his heart was really in it, as the booklet note by Danilo Prefumo acknowledges. The music for the First Act is determinedly light-hearted, and it is not until the entry of Gessler in Act Two that we suddenly encounter anything more serious. The tyrant’s opening aria - sung here partly from horseback - may owe much to the example of Gluck, but it also looks forward to later revolutionary operas. One can even detect passages which anticipate the music that Beethoven wrote for Pizarro in his ‘rescue opera’ Fidelio. Shortly after this the production by Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera undermines the climactic scene when Tell shoots the apple from his son’s head. Although the guying is wittily done – and provokes laughter and applause from the audience – it betrays a fatal unwillingness to take the score seriously.

Quite apart from this incident, the production unfortunately takes its general cue from Grétry’s lighter style and treats the subject throughout in a comic fashion which one imagines would not have found favour with French audiences at the height of the Revolution. In the final Act the battle between the Austrians and the Swiss is portrayed by some singularly ugly - and inelegantly handled - puppets. Nor does the portrayal of the blinded Melktal with his very modern-looking sunglasses strike the right sort of note. The delightful dog that runs around the stage during the first and third Acts is remarkably well behaved and clearly enjoys himself, but one fears that he may be in need of some flea treatment. The extensive spoken dialogue is delivered in an arch manner with emphases that would be way over the top in a ‘traditional’ production of Gilbert and Sullivan. The characters assume not-very-funny ‘funny voices’ and guy the admittedly stilted text unmercifully.

One is grateful that the performers at least take the music seriously, because there is some really good stuff here. The cast, with the exception of Marc Laho - remembered with affection from his Glyndebourne Count Ory - is unfamiliar, but all are thoroughly committed to their roles and capable of handling the far from inconsiderable difficulties of their vocal lines. Stefan Cifolelli has a duet with Laho in which the two tenors strike sparks off each other with aplomb despite the extraordinarily wide range demanded of both of them. Lionel Lhote’s aria has a similarly wide tessitura and he handles both high and low notes with ease as well as a tangible sense of villainy. The three females often combine in duet and trio, and the results are charming in the hands of Anne-Catherine Gillet, Liesbeth Devos and Natacha Kowalski. Gillet also has a substantial solo aria in the final Act which the booklet notes compare to that of Leonore in Fidelio. The resemblances are rather distant - closer to the earlier version before Beethoven revised it - but it is nevertheless impressive. Patrick Delcour and Roger Joakim have much less to do, but don’t let the side down.

The staging, with its toytown-like flats wheeled in and out, is charming and whimsical. The costumes place the action firmly in the era of composition, an updating which does no real damage to either the plot or the credibility of the action - such as it is. Claudio Scimone keeps everything bubbling along nicely in the pit, and the orchestra plays very well for him. The chorus might perhaps have benefited from a few more sopranos, but they fulfil their roles well. The presentation is good, with subtitles in five languages but oddly the opening and closing titles on screen are given in French and German only. With a properly democratic approach the booklet notes come in Italian and English.

One of the great tragic might-have-beens of recorded music is the failure by Decca to agree to Beecham’s suggestion that he would like to lay down some French opéras comiques for them in the years before his death. John Culshaw in his autobiography states that the project was stymied by the opposition of Ernest Ansermet, who regarded French opera as his peculiar province. The only recording we have of Beecham in this sort of repertory is his BBC taping of Cherubini’s Les deux journées, but one can only imagine the sort of performance he might have given of a score like this. Grétry might not have been naturally suited to the full panoply of French grand opera, but he didn’t make a bad fist of his attempt at it here. Rossini — who probably heard the 1828 revival — certainly picked up some hints here and there, with the imitations of Swiss horn calls and the storm sequences. This opera is one of the more impressive re-discoveries of this period, and deserves to be heard more often.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

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