Review: A Rare King Arthur Opera, Bard Says ‘Welcome Back’


ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, NY – Just two words from the loudspeakers to loud applause for the audience at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College on Sunday evening: “Welcome back.”

welcome back, really Ernest Chausson’s rarely heard opera “Le Roi Arthus” Presented as part of the Bard’s SummerScape festival. And welcome back to the many audiences who watch after such a long abstinence that being in a theater for live opera with a full orchestra and choir is something to really cheer up.

Based on the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, “Le Roi Arthus” proved to be a powerful study for this packed, polarized moment in American life. It is the story of an idealistic ruler who fails to bring about the age of enlightenment for which he strives, but whose principles will endure, as a chorus of angels reassures him, often at the end of fascinating music. The production is the latest project in conductor Leon Botstein’s long campaign to break classical music from its obsession with the cornerstones of the repertoire and draw attention to neglected works.

This extraordinary opera, which was first staged in Brussels in 1903, four years after the composer died in a bicycle accident at the age of 44, deserves particular attention. Chausson, who also wrote the libretto, worked on it for almost a decade—not because he was hooked, but because he wanted to get it right. He did. The Bard production, directed by Louisa Proske, is simple in scenery but richly costumed and strikingly effective. And Botstein, who leads the American Symphony Orchestra, an impressive ensemble cast, and the excellent Bard Festival Chorus, made a compelling case for the piece. (How have fewer works faded as we continue to return to the international stage by French composers of the Chausson era – especially for me, Massenet?)

NS Wagner’s influence, especially “Tristan und Isolde” appears above “Le Roi Arthus”. Chausson was a Wagner devotee, no doubt: on his honeymoon in 1883 he took his wife to the Bayreuth Festival to see “Parsifal.” While working on “Arthus,” Chausson corresponded with his friend Debussy, who had a love-hate relationship with Wagner. In a letter, Chausson wrote that the plot similarity between his opera and “Tristan”—both about the overly strong feelings of love that led to marriage and betrayal of duty—would not matter to him if he could “successfully cleanse myself of Wagner.” ”

Wagnerian strings run through the music, even hints of motifs from the “Tristan” and “Tristan” chord. Yet the score comes across as indebted to the French heritage Chausson was born with, particularly Franck and Massenet. His use of bold chromatic harmonies is less obscure and obscure than Wagner’s writing, more ludicrous and bright. The score is rich with lyrical stretches that almost turn into song.

The orchestral prelude is at first filled with pompous music suggesting the victorious war waged by the king’s forces over the invading Saxons. We meet Arthur with his wife, Guinevere, next to him, presiding over a celebration meeting of his court. baritone Norman GarrettDressed in elegant robes and a gold crown, he looked and sounded as magnificent as Arthur. His voice is deep but capable of lightness in his high range, easily conveyed authority and dignity. Yet even in the opening monologue he used music for clues to the king’s vulnerability.

When the king chose the valiant knight Lancelot (the fiery tenor) Matthew White) as “a true winner” the other knights mutter their anger, especially the menacing Mordred (Justin Austin, a young baritone). In this retelling of the story, Lancelot and Guinevere have already been consumed by illicit love. mezzo-soprano as queen Sasha Cooke brings a shimmering sound and a touch of self-destructive volatility to her singing. Unlike Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, this couple is fully aware that they have betrayed their king and their oath. But as Guinevere said, “love is the only law.”

The singers demonstrated commitment to an important project by learning these challenging roles for this production. Botstein’s enthusiasm for a score he’s long championed – sometimes too much. He sometimes let the orchestra beat the singers, while bringing out the brilliant richness and intensity of the music. Still, this added immediate pace and color to the nearly three-hour score.

The opera ends with a series of death scenes, one death scene for each of the main characters – a dramatically risky move that Chausson has masterfully handled. In a boldly slow, captivating monologue, Guinevere strangles herself with her own long hair. Lancelot returns to the castle mortally wounded, making no offer of defense in his battle with his former comrades who avenge their king, and lives long enough to ask Arthur for forgiveness in painful but noble words.

A shaken up death-seeking Arthur is greeted by a group of celestial maidens who offer to lead him not to death but to eternal sleep. Chausson transformed this sequence into a shimmering, harmonically lush double choir performed here by choir members in heavenly white robes. “Your name may perish,” they tell Arthur, but “your ideas are immortal.”

We hope this production will help Chausson’s opera flourish as well.

Le Roi Arthus

at Bard College during Sunday; fishing It was also published on this website on July 28.


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