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A King Arthur Rarity Is an Apt Way to Return to the Opera

A King Arthur Rarity Is an Apt Way to Return to the Opera
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A King Arthur Rarity Is an Apt Way to Return to the Opera

A King Arthur Rarity Is an Apt Way to Return to the Opera

In the third act of Ernest Chausson’s opera “Le Roi Arthus” (“King Arthur”), Guinevere asks Lancelot: “United in love, united in sin, will we also be united in death? ?

The tangled Arthurian love triangle is familiar from “The Once and Future King”, “Camelot” and the works of Sir Thomas Malory. But here, the question, posed over sighs of nostalgia in the orchestra, immediately evokes another complicated lyrical romance of the nineteenth century: “Tristan und Isolde” by Wagner.

Chausson’s only opera, which benefits from a rare staging at the Bard SummerScape festival from Sunday, never completely escapes the shadow of “Tristan”.

But in “King Arthus” he also managed to find his own way. Contemporary of Henri Duparc and Gabriel Fauré, Chausson (1855-99) is today best known for his “Poème” for violin and orchestra. Born into wealth, he composes slowly and carefully. “Arthus”, which he wrote for nearly a decade in the 1880s and 90s, was not premiered until 1903, years after his death in a bicycle accident. By the turn of the 20th century, the work seemed already dated and has only been performed occasionally since.

“It’s incredibly beautiful,” Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and production conductor, said in an interview. “And not just beautiful, but grammatically very intelligently put together.”

Like many composers of his time, Chausson worked under the anxious influence – what he called “the fiery and despotic inspiration” – of Wagner. “If you’re going to be influenced by someone, Wagner is as good as you can get,” Botstein said. “But it is terribly obvious that it is not from Wagner; there is a very French chromaticism and a French melodic sensibility.

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Chausson was well aware of the threat of simply rewriting “Tristan”. His friend Claude Debussy wrote to him in 1893 with the concern that part of Debussy’s opera then in progress, “Pelléas et Mélisande”, “resembled the duet of Mr. So-and-so” – that is to say Wagner . Later, after reviewing a draft of “Le Roi Arthus”, Debussy wrote to Chausson: “We would do well, it seems to me, to take the opposite view.

Chausson’s score sometimes resembles that of Wagner, notably in a brief and prodigious appearance by Merlin. But he also made conscious decisions to distance himself from the master: he tends to avoid the typically Wagnerian dense orchestration and shifting thickets of this composer’s leitmotifs – pieces of music representing characters or concepts.

As was Wagner’s practice, Chausson wrote his own libretto and edited it several times – especially after his colleague Duparc sent him a 51-page review pointing out the opera’s similarities to “Tristan”. By its final form, unlike Wagner’s opera, Lancelot and Guinevere’s illicit affair is already going on at the start of the opera, and they are in full control of their own destiny – not, as in “Tristan”, under the charm of a love potion. And Lancelot, crucially, is experiencing an unprecedented crisis of conscience for Wagner’s hero.

Chausson transforms his mythical characters into fallible and conflicting humans. Arthur (to Bard, baritone Norman Garrett) grapples with the loss of his marriage and his most loyal confidant. The extended duets for Lancelot (tenor Matthew White) and Guinevere (mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke) explore earthly questions of trust, loyalty and love – far from the schopenhauerian and philosophical mists of Wagner.

Louisa Proske, the production manager, sees it as one of the strengths of opera. “This love is organic, it’s genuine and it’s human,” she said in an interview. “And it’s very modern, in the sense that Chausson is really interested in the stalemate between the two lovers and how the arguments on either side continue to play out.”

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Writing on “King Arthus”, musicologist Steven Huebner pointed out that Guinevere can be considered a typical fin-de-siècle opera seductress, her chromatism aligned with Carmen before her and Salome after – “driven by sensuality. , a threat to manhood. “

But Proske disagrees. “It’s not a femme fatale sharing the good work of the men,” she said. “She is a woman who fights for a love that she believes is deeply sublime and the greatest good in this world. There is so much substance in what she says and expresses musically.

Proske’s staging mixes images from different cultures, both ancient and modern. She said the abstract decor and timeless costumes – including the new heraldry for Arthur’s Knights – “create a tension between the past and the future.”

“They are not historically accurate,” she added of the designs. “They express an imaginary idea of ​​Europe. I really like that it’s an action movie at the same time because there are knights and kings and queens. He’s got that kind of epic grand scale that’s really fun to put on stage. And at the same time, it is deeply an opera of ideas.

The work represents Arthur’s Round Table in its twilight. “The Round Table,” said Proske, “to which Arthur devotes his life, represents or embodies an idea of ​​good governance and good royalty, 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 opera’s most distinctive sequence: its ending, in which a boat arrives to take Arthur away. Five sopranos offstage and what the score describes as an “invisible choir” call it to “come with us beyond the stars” to “deep and endless sleep”. (Morgan Le Fay and Avalon are not mentioned.) This all comes after two extended death scenes for Lancelot and Guinevere, who chokes on his own hair.

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The Bard production will bring this invisible choir to the stage. “Arthur and the heroic and charismatic autocratic nobility essentially disintegrate and recede into the heavens,” Botstein said. “People go on stage. They represent the future. There is a symbolic vision of the possibilities of democracy.

Proske also sees the end as an image of recurrence: “It’s the situation of a political leader at the end of his life. It is a complete failure because the project failed. The gift that the choir brings to Arthur is to say that he has not failed, because in the future it will happen again, your thought will live and take shape in different periods of history, and people will pick up on what you left us. . “

Such a fragile promise of renewal and rebirth is perhaps an appropriate way to return to opera after the coronavirus pandemic. “I think it’s a really exciting piece to come back to, because deep down it’s actually thinking about the need for a collective storytelling,” Proske said. “I hope the audience feels a part of this collective at the end and brings home something that will stay with them.”

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