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.
Grétry left the Austrian Netherlands - as they were then - early in his
career and settled permanently in France during the days of the ancien
. 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
with its emphasis on the ideals of liberty and freedom, and
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
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
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
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
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