Opera-goers who attend the opening of Beethoven’s Fidelio at Santa Fe Opera this week may be curious to hear how it compares to other politically loaded operas that enjoyed a vogue at the time. The short answer is that it is far better, but that doesn’t make contextualizing it less interesting. Musique en Wallonie, a label dedicated to unearthing historical repertoire from the French-speaking sector of Belgium, includes among its most recent offerings an operatic rarity: Guillaume Tell, a 1791 opera in three short acts by André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry, a leading musical Walloon of the French Revolutionary period. Suspected of earlier royalist leanings, Grétry found an antidote in the tale of William Tell, the Swiss patriot who stands up to a repressive tyrant who, in retaliation, orders him to shoot an apple perched on his son’s head, after which everyone commends sacrificing whatever is necessary in the cause of liberty. This is an opéra-comique, which means it includes extensive spoken dialogue. Grétry’s musical style is forthrightly populist and appealing in its charm. Let us be clear: this recommendation extends to the piece’s historical interest and not to the quality of the live performance, although the focused soprano of Anne-Catherine Gillet is welcome as Mrs. Tell. The orchestra (under the baton of Claudio Scimone) is often rough and the vocal acting evokes a fifth-grade class play.
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