André Ernest Modeste Gretry is one of those fairly forgotten composers whose operas receive rare but regular revivals. Gretry was born in Liege in 1741. Then Principality of Liege, the city became part of France in 1795 when it was part of the Ourthe department. At the Fall of the First French Empire it became Dutch and in 1830 Belgian (we opera lovers know this story quite well. Thanks, Auber!!). Gretry wasn’t touched in the least with all this, as he left for Italy, Switzerland and Paris already in the 60’s of the 18th century. He became quite a famous composer, he knew Voltaire and Rousseau; later-guillotined Marie-Antoinette made him court-composer of her husband, and he found a way to ingratiate himself with Napoleon who knighted him Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. He died in 1813, is buried in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris but his heart rests in an urn, placed under the statue in his honour in front of the Opera Royal de Wallonie in Liege.
His most famous opera’s are Richard Coeur de Lion, Zemire et Azor, and Pierre le Grand. Guillaume Tell was premiered 9th April 1791 in Paris at the Comedie Italienne, two years after the French revolution. It was the same year of Mozart’s Zauberlföte (which he started to compose in April of that year), of La Clemenza di Tito, of the Clarinet Concerto and of Mozart’s death in December of the same year. Gretry’s biggest accomplishment lies in opera comique and his influence is still noticeable with Adam, Boildeau, Auber and others. For today’s ears (or MINE, anyway) he sounds fairly “light”. Although Gretry has been praised to have a gift for melody, the music overall sounds quite trivial, alternating more dramatic passages and characters with heroic and affectionate ones. He recurs to ariette (literally small aria’s), hopping rhythms and popular songs with simple accompaniment, using as couleur-locale a clarinet playing alpine music, octave leaps to imitate yodel and similar know-how, trying to merge italianism with German music and French declamato.
It is the Opera de Liege, who commemorates the 200th death anniversary of the composer. This opera house is doing a very good job in resuscitating rare opera’s, though with very alternating results.
If the audience expected to hear a famous finale, an even more famous gallop during the ouverture, and cry a little moved by tragic events, they probably mistook this with Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, composed 38 years later, although Rossini might have known the opera, which was staged in May 1828, the time Rossini worked on his Comte Ory (In an interview Scimone said that he noticed in the first bars of music the musical theme that Rossini used for his sumptuous finale (with a light difference in rhythm, he added).
The plot is well known to everybody: Tell refuses to salute a hat placed on a mast by the mean local lord and is forced to shoot an apple from his son’s head. The end is happy.
The main set shows elements put one behind the other as to give a sense of depth. The set elements depict mountains, a village, a castle and even puppets of peasants and soldiers in a fighting scene etc. They are all mobile and quite beautifully created (Jean-Guy Lecat). They are moved by stagehands dressed as sailors, as, so tells us Mazzonis de Pralafera, at the time of Gretry, the ropes and strings were entirely moved by sailors (were they? really??). The result is very effective and charming. Costumes are averagely convincing. Di Pralafera makes the singer all act with overly-dramatic voices and gestures (to be funny one shall assume) but for my taste they achieve the contrary (the Belgian public is not amused or moved either, but then again….sometimes I wonder what does….)
Anne-Catherine Gillet is very well cast as Madame Tell. She is at the starting ramp of her career and is now adding Traviata’s to her repertory (sic!). M.me Tell, who is the only character to have an aria in the opera, sings with a strong voice over the whole range, though her voice sounds a bit metallic at times. Marc Laho as Tell has a clear voice with a pleasant timbre. Lionel Lhote never really convinced me as a singer (Figaro in Rossini’s Barbiere in Ghent, Dandini in Brussels etc), sometimes a bit unrefined and uneven with a backward voice. As Gessler he lacks the low notes required in his entrance piece but otherwise he sings with a pleasing timbre. Liesbeth Devos’ timbre reminds me a bit of Mady Mesplé’s, so not one you would define as round and mellow, but she sings the small role of Marie well. And so does the rest of the cast.
Scimone directs well though little theatrically, but orchestra and choir are both approximate and croaky.
This production is overall very interesting, it increases our knowledge of Grétry as a composer of music for the theatre Nothing is really out of place, the production is sparkling and satisfying. A very pleasant evening.
Ouverture and excerpts of the Liege production can be viewed online
Musical direction-Claudio Scimone, Direction-Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Set design-Jean-Guy Lecat, Costumes-Fernand Ruiz, Lightning-Franco Marri, Guillaume Tell-Marc Laho, Madame Tell-Anne-Catherine Gillet, Gessler-Lionel Lhote, Marie-Liesbeth Devos, Melktal senior-Patrick Delcour, Melktal junior-Stefan Cifolelli, The traveller-Roger Joakim