André-Modest Grétry - Guillaume Tell
Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2013
Claudio Scimone, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Marc Laho, Anne-Catherine Gillet, Lionel Lhote, Liesbeth Devos, Patrick Delcour, Stefan Cifolelli
ARTE Live Web, Internet Steaming, June 2013
I've been very impressed with the work that Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera has achieved over the last couple of years as director in charge of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège. There's been a good mix of standard repertoire done with some originality and flair, and there's also been some more adventurous programming of lesser-known but wholly accessible works deserving of rather more exposure (Haydn, Galuppi, early Rossini). This year has been no exception, but to celebrate the opera company's return to their restored home at the Théâtre Royal the 2012-13 season significantly opened and closed with rarely performed works by two composers born in Liège - César Franck (whose early work Stradella opened the new season) and André-Modeste Grétry.
Grétry is another of those composers who were wildly popular in their time but whose work is now considered somewhat unfashionable and unlikely to click with a modern audience. It's true that the spoken dialogue, comic diversions and pleasant melodies of the French opéra-comique operetta form is far removed from the serious Italian or German opera styles prevalent in the standard opera repertoire, and that the humour and musicianship is far from the sophistication of Grétry's contemporary Mozart. Written in 1791 (the year Mozart died) for Paris audiences by a composer who came through the French Revolution, the timing of his version of the William Tell story at least gives it some historical interest. It gives much more than that however in this terrific production from Liège, which goes to great lengths to reproduce the authentic nature and the spirit of the work, and manages to do so to great effect.
Running to only 85 minutes in length, Grétry's version of Guillaume Tell is considerably more concise in its treatment of the historical drama than Rossini's final masterpiece, but by and large the main points are the same. The composer even finds plenty of opportunity within this short running time to introduce all those little colourful interludes and songs that seem to have little relevance to the actual drama but are so much a part of the opéra-comique style. Here, at the opening of Act I it's all to do with the wedding of Melktal, the son of the chief of the canton, to Marie, the daughter of William Tell. Despite his father being away on business, discussing the question of the high taxes that are being demanded by the Austrian governor Gessler, the wedding is going ahead, and there is inevitably much singing and dancing.
The celebrations are however abruptly halted by the news of the elder Melktal's unfortunate run-in with Gessler. A dispute has arisen over the correct form to show respect to a representative of the Emperor and as a lesson, Gessler has demanded that his hat be displayed prominently in the town square, and that respects should be paid to it by everyone who passes. Melktal's father - it is reported rather than actually acted out - indignantly responds that he would never see such a thing, and promptly has his eyes burned out by the cruel governor. William Tell nevertheless also defies the ruling - and similarly we are told this rather than shown it - and is arrested, but is given the chance to save himself from execution if he can demonstrate his ability as the greatest archer in Switzerland by shooting an apple set on the head of his son. That bit we most definitely don't miss out on.
Despite the unusual approach to the development of the drama, with many diversions of local colour and humour, Grétry's Guillaume Tell is nonetheless wonderfully constructed, hitting all the necessary dramatic points with plenty of entertainment and colour. It's also performed that way in this charming production of the work by the Opéra Royal de Wallonie. Quite why there's so much comic exaggeration in the long drawn out phrases and curious intonations of the spoken dialogue, I'm not sure. Is this an historically accurate way of performing an opéra-comique, or is it just making fun of the Swiss Alpine accent in this particular work? It takes a little getting used to, but it does add something to what might otherwise sound silly - even if that is just more silliness. Most disconcertingly, it's even used during the grave account of the elder Melktal's blinding, which makes it curiously funny and disturbing at the same time.
Elsewhere there's a similar approach to the staging, which on the one hand looks cheesy with its old-fashioned Swiss country village setting and painted backdrops (including a wheeled on cow that leaves behind a bit of a mess), but it also captures the contradictory nature of this Guillaume Tell (and perhaps Grétry's ambivalent response to the Revolution which did him little favour as a composer and citizen of Paris) and gets across the spirit of the work in a way that feels authentic, or at least appropriate. Still allowing time for diversions as the drama escalates with William Tell's actions, this tone and its effectiveness is best exemplified in the battle scene which is played out with cardboard cut-out soldiers operated by puppet strings. A little more modern technical wizardry is called for in the critical apple shooting archery scene - a neon-lit arrow flying with slow-motion sureness on the darkened stage towards its goal - but again it all fits marvellously with the tone adopted.
The acting and singing performances are all also very much on the same page. The performances never pretend to be anything other than fully theatrical, but they are taken seriously within this context and never resort to tongue-in-cheek making fun of the work or its stylisations. This has been typical of Opéra Royal de Wallonie productions under Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, and once again it proves to be the best possible way of presenting this kind of material.
Also typical of the Liège company is the use of a strong regular cast of Belgian singers (with occasional imported Italians and other nationalities in works that require a more authentic touch). Accordingly, we have the usual solid performances from Marc Laho as Tell, although his character is somewhat surprisingly not tested with any arias in this work, Anne-Catherine Gillet as his wife (taking most of the main arias and singing them wonderfully), with Lionel Lhote as Gessler and Liesbeth Devos as the Tell's daughter Marie. With this kind of presentation, Grétry's Guillaume Tell becomes more than just a fascinating historical curiosity and comes fully to life once again as a marvellous entertainment.
The Opéra Royal de Wallonie's production of Grétry's Guillaume Tell is available for viewing for free via Internet Streaming on the ARTE Live Web site. There are no subtitles for the broadcast.