Andre Ernest Modeste Gretry: Guillaume Tell (1791)

Opera-comique en trois actes. Running Time: 1 hour 21 minutes.

OperaScribe recently posted a review of this work and Gretry during the French Revolution available here.

Before Rossini wrote his mammoth four hour long take on the Swiss legend, Gretry tried his hand at a much, much shorter version. Premiered at the height of the French Revolution, the tale of Swiss violent overthrow of Austrian oppression (Marie-Antoinette was a daughter of Maria Teresa, the Hapsburg Austrian empress) the score was at first successful but has since faded into obscurity, especially in the advent of the groundbreaking work by the Italian composer.


par Charles-Abraham Chasselat (1829) 

SETTING: Switzerland, 13th century. Sort of the same as the later Rossini opera, but with Tell (tenor in this version) having a daughter (soprano) as well as a son (contralto), and the daughter is engaged to the son of Malktal (tenor, so I suppose the Arnold figure). But Old Malktal (baritone) is blinded by the evil Austrian governor Guesler (baritone) during the wedding festivities, sparking off proto-Marxist revolution!


ACT 1: A Swiss Mountain valley village, dawn. (31 minutes)

0: The overture * starts with the sounds of cattle rancher flutes followed by furious mood setting from the strings and timpani only to return to ranching, this time from the strings , and still with some foreboding.

7, 15: Ah! nous serons nous bien, On ne peut de tres bon heure The first ensemble * (after much  starts off as a duet for the two Tell children which is transformed into a quartet with the arrival of the Malktals (the son is engaged to the Tell daughter). This is followed by a bouncy trio for Guilluame and his children, and then the chorus shows up, because why not? and the kids ask daddy Malktal for a song *.

18: Noisette, noisette The Tell son gets an incredibly grave song about, of all things, hazelnuts * (also accompanied by the chorus).

20: Puisses tu ma fille Finally something of greater weight as Madame Tell addresses her daughter and an ensemble develops as the marriage ceremony is about to take place (Gretry adds some chromaticism here which is worthy of two stars **). The celebrations are disrupted by the news that Old Malktal has been captured by the Austrians, and blinded on the order of Guesler.

26: Grand Dieux quelle barbarie! The act finale * continues the dramatic weight of the previous number to a satisfactory conclusion. Followed by an entr’acte.

ACT 2: The Same, later that day. (28 minutes)

2: O ciel quoi je perdrais A comforting duet * between Malktal fils and Marie Tell, which becomes more ardent and fiery but which simply refuses to come to a boil (in spite of the  proto-bel canto ending with the soprano on high b-flat and tenor on high g).

6: Non jamais! Suddenly the evil one shows up and gives us the best number so far in the opera: an aria for Guesler **. Guesler decides to publicly execute some guy and Tell offers to shoot an apple off the head of his son, if he succeeds, Guesler will release the man.

11, 18: Seigneur! Seigneur! Madame Tell begs Guesler to be merciful as the extended archery scene commences **. The best part is when Tell makes his prayer to the Almighty  ** right before making the (successful) shot.

21: Vive Tell! Post-shot chorusing * is interrupted when Guesler offers Tell a position in the Austrian army, which is refused, and Tell is arrested.

24: Nous vivons, et nous souffrons The act finale ** has the townspeople rising up in open rebellion with pitchforks at the ready.

ACT 3: The Same (?)  (22 minutes.)

0, 2: O ciel! A second, better, entr’acte * is followed by an aria for Madame Tell ** as she expresses her fear that Tell will not return. But her son arrives to tell her that his father is saved.

9: Je suis alterrede de vengeance A triumphal trio for the Tells *. Not to the level of Rossini, but nevertheless joyful.

14: A Roncevaux dans les Clairsveaux A strange (brief) song * about Roland which comes out of nothing and just as quickly disappears (although the tune is taken up by the chorus). This is followed by a symphonic battle depicting the triumph of the Swiss over the Austrians.

20: Servons aux siècles The opera ends with a joyous chorus of liberty **.


Guillaume Tell could have been a great opera, but instead it is one of the great WTFs of operatic history. It is obvious that Gretry had a great subject here, and the music at times borders on brilliant, but only just. The problem with it is that although Gretry works out the dramatic elements well (to some extent at least), these are attached to much which is, frankly, inane, childish, and stupid. The first act, until the wedding scene, is idiotic farce, in fact, all of the dialogue sequences should be cut just to make the poor thing work dramatically. The second act has more dramatic power than the first, but it never truly rises beyond the level of undemanding melodrama. The third act starts off and ends well, but the dialogue makes a travesty of the same drama that the music desperately tries to support. The best number is Non jamais, and we all know how problematic it is when the villain gets the best number in the piece. Unfortunately a B-.

4 responses to “Andre Ernest Modeste Gretry: Guillaume Tell (1791)”

  1. Masochist! Why did you choose to review this one, of all 18th century operas?

    A B-? You’re generous!

    Is it one of the great WTF’s? To qualify, I think, it has to be either famous or infamous (march of the Nazi penguins or Albeniz); this is a long buried, minor work – and like a lot of Grétry, there’s little to it. You’re right that it seems inane, childish, and stupid; the first act is like The Sound of Music rewritten for the terminally dim. It does seem to be aimed at children, even preschoolers, and it never quite turns into an opera for grownups.

    So far, Grétry’s two best works are easily Andromaque, where he surprisingly successfully sets Racine, and Richard Coeur-de-lion.

    Oh, there are plenty of operas where the villain gets the best number. Don’t they say the devil has the best tunes? And what about your beloved Macbeth?


    1. Macbeth is more of an anti-hero than a villain. Lady Macbeth is the real villain!

      I actually liked a lot of Guillaume Tell, and have wanted to review it for three years, your post simply spurred me on to finally get it done. The two-star items were things I actually enjoyed.

      Also, I have an Albeniz in the offering soon. Maybe I will speed it up to my first February post (it has been finished for like five or six months now).

      I also loved Zemire et Azor, and that is also Gretry.

      Chalk up my masochism to my Roman Catholic up bringing. I might be Serbian Orthodox now, but it frequently flares up.


      1. I’ve heard eight Grétry operas since September – MORE than enough!


      2. Really? I have only heard two completely and bits of Richard and Pierre le grand, and I rather like what I have heard so far, especially Zemire et Azor, which is possibly the greatest French opera of the 18th century. Guillaume Tell has pastoral structural problems with its vaguely comedic elements, but the serious stuff was handled well, hence my B-.


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