Grétry

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COMPOSERS: Gretry
LABELS: Musique en Wallonie
ALBUM TITLE: Grétry: Guillaume Tell
WORKS: Guillaume Tell
PERFORMER: Marc Laho, Anne-Catherine Gillet, Lionel Lhote, Liesbeth Devos, Natacha Kowalski, Patrick Delcour, Stefan Cifolelli, Roger Joakim; Orchestre et Choeurs de l’Opéra royal de Wallonie/Claudio Scimone
CATALOGUE NO: MEW 1370

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Among minor opera composers inspiring disproportionately strong affection, the Belgian André Grétry (1741-1813) stands out. Liège-born and Rome-trained, a dominant figure in Parisian popular opera for nearly 50 years, he proved crucially important in the development of opéra-comique (in which sung numbers alternate with speech).

He managed to retain popularity throughout unstable times, from Marie-Antoinette’s era, via the revolution, into that of Napoleon. The prime reasons for his longevity were his innate melodic abundance and lifelong determination to infuse sincerity and naturalness into French opera. In orchestral and harmonic terms his scores can seem primitive, yet in, say, Zémire et Azor (1771) and Richard Coeur-de-Lion (1784), his best-remembered works, a genius for vocal lines at once memorably simple and theatrically apt unfailingly brings the drama to life.

In principle, the Grétry discography should have been enriched by Guillaume Tell (1791, No. 51 on a work list of 68, preceding Rossini’s mighty masterpiece by nearly three decades). Lacking Zémire’s radiant lyricism, it comes across as compact, fast-moving and expertly judged in marrying limited resources and spectacle, with atmospheric variety and orchestral writing more ambitious than one associates with Grétry. In practice, this live Opéra de Wallonie recording exposes prominent performance weaknesses – persistently lax ensemble under the veteran Claudio Scimone and a bizarre insistence on having spoken passages delivered in a manner of ridiculous send-up. Notwithstanding a capable francophone cast led by the tenor Marc Laho (Tell), soprano Anne-Catherine Gillet (his wife) and baritone Lionel Lhote (the villain Gessler), the overall impression is disappointingly patchy.

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Max Loppert