A King Arthur Rarity Is A Convenient Way To Return To Opera

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In the third act of Ernest Chausson’s opera “Le Roi Arthus” (“King Arthur”), Guinevere asks Lancelot, “Unified in love, united in sin, shall we unite in death?” he asks.

The tangled Arthurian love triangle is familiar from the works of “The King Once and Future”, “Camelot” and Sir Thomas Malory. But here, the question that elicits longing sighs in the orchestra immediately evokes another complex 19th-century operatic romance: Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.”

Chausson’s only opera given A rare staging at the Bard SummerScape festival Beginning with Sunday, he never fully escapes the shadow of “Tristan”.

However, he also managed to find his own way in “Le Roi Arthus”. A contemporary of Henri Duparc and Gabriel Fauré, Chausson (1855-99) is best known today for his “Poetry” for violin and orchestra. Born for wealth, he composed slowly and carefully. “Arthus,” which he wrote for almost a decade in the 1880s and 90s, did not premiere until 1903, years after he died in a bicycle accident. At the beginning of the 20th century, the work already looked dated and has only been done occasionally since then.

“It’s incredibly beautiful,” Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and head of production, said in an interview. “And not only is it beautiful, it’s also very cleverly put together grammatically.”

Like many composers of his time, Chausson worked under Wagner’s anxious influence—what he called “fiery and despotic inspiration.” “If you’re going to be impressed with someone, Wagner is as good as you can get,” Botstein said. “But it is very clear that this is not Wagner’s; It has a lot of French chromatism and French melodic sensibility.”

Chausson was well aware of the threat of simply rewriting “Tristan.” His friend, Claude Debussy, wrote to him in 1893, concerned that the then-running part of Debussy’s own opera “Pelléas et Mélisande” meant “similar to a duet by Mr. So-and-so” – Wagner. Later, Debussy, after reviewing a draft of “Le Roi Arthus,” wrote to Chausson: “It seems to me that we win by doing the opposite.”

Chausson’s score sometimes resembles Wagner’s, especially Merlin’s short, sinister look. But he also made conscious decisions to distance himself from the master: he tends to avoid the characteristically Wagnerian dense orchestration and the composer’s shifting leitmotif thickets – pieces of music that represent characters or concepts.

As in Wagner’s practice, Chausson wrote and edited his own libretto many times – especially after his colleague Duparc sent him a 51-page critique that noted the opera’s similarities to “Tristan”. In its final form, unlike Wagner’s opera, Lancelot and Guinevere’s illicit relationship continues already at the beginning of the opera, and they are completely in control of their own destiny – not under the spell of a spell “as in Tristan”. Philtre. And Lancelot, most importantly, experiences a crisis of conscience unlike anything Wagner’s hero has ever faced.

Chausson transforms his legendary figures into fallible, contradictory people. Arthur (baritone Norman Garrett in The Bard) struggles with losing his marriage and his most trusted confidant. Extended duets for Lancelot (tenor Matthew White) and Guinevere (mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke) explore Wagner’s questions of earthly trust, loyalty, and love away from the heavy philosophical Schopenhauer mists.

Production director Louisa Proske sees this as one of the opera’s strengths. “This love is organic, real and human,” he said in an interview. “And very modern in the sense that Chausson is really interested in the stalemate between the two lovers and how the arguments on both sides go.”

Musicologist Steven Huebner, writing about “Le Roi Arthus”, pointed out that Guinevere can be seen as a typical Fin-de-siècle operatic seducer, while his chromaticity is aligned with Carmen before him and Salome after him – “driven by sensuality, posing a threat. masculinity.”

But Proske disagrees. “She’s not a femme fatale who interrupts men’s good deeds,” she said. “She is a woman who she deeply believes is great and who is fighting for the highest good in this world. There is so much substance in what he says and expresses musically.”

Proske’s staging brings together images from different cultures, both ancient and modern. He said the abstract set and timeless costumes, including new crests for Arthur’s knights, “create a tension between the past and the future.”

“They are not historically accurate,” he added for the designs. “They express the idea of ​​an imaginary Europe. I really like that it’s an action movie as it also has knights and kings and queens. It has that kind of big, epic scale that is really fun to stage. It is also a profound opera of ideas.”

The work depicts Arthur’s Round Table at dusk. “The Round Table to which Arthur devoted his life,” he said, “represents or embodies the idea of ​​good governance and good kingship, which is not quite the same as democracy.”

The political context will come to the fore in Bard’s presentation of what is perhaps the most distinctive sequence of the opera: the end of the end, when a boat arrives to take Arthur away. Five backstage sopranos and what the music describes as an “invisible chorus” invites him to “come with us beyond the stars” for a “deep, eternal sleep”. (Morgan Le Fay and Avalon are not mentioned.) All this comes after two long death scenes for Lancelot and Guinevere, who strangle themselves with their own hair.

Bard-made will put that invisible choir on stage. “Arthur and the heroic, charismatic autocratic nobles are intrinsically disintegrating and being drawn towards heaven,” Botstein said. “The people are taking the stage. They represent the future. There is a symbolic vision of the possibilities of democracy.”

Proske also sees the end as an image of repetition: “This is the state of a political leader at the end of his life. This is a complete failure as the project failed. The gift the choir brings to Arthur is to say that it doesn’t fail, because it will repeat in the future, your thinking will live and be shaped in different periods of history, and people will take what you left us. ”

Such a fragile promise of renewal and rebirth could be a viable way to get back to the opera house after the coronavirus pandemic. “I think this is a really exciting piece to come back to because, at its core, it actually considers the necessity of collective storytelling,” Proske said. “I hope the audience finally feels part of this collective and takes home something to stay with them.”

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