Review: To a Rare King Arthur Opera, Bard Says ‘Welcome Back’
ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, NY – It took just two words over the speakers for the audience at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College on Sunday night to burst into loud applause: “Welcome back.”
Welcome, indeed, to Ernest Chausson’s rarely heard opera “Le Roi Arthus”, presented as part of Bard’s SummerScape festival. And welcome back to many spectators, for whom being in a theater for a live opera with a full orchestra and choirs, after such a long deprivation, was truly something to applaud.
“King Arthus”, based on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, has proven to be a powerful work for this busy and polarized moment in American life. It is the story of an idealist sovereign who fails to achieve the Age of Enlightenment he seeks, but whose principles will endure, as an angelic choir assures us at the end of an often lovely score. The production is the latest project in conductor Leon Botstein’s long campaign to shatter classical music from its fixation on repertoire bases and draw attention to neglected works.
This remarkable opera, created in Brussels in 1903, four years after the death of its composer in a bicycle accident at the age of 44, is particularly deserving. Chausson, who also wrote the libretto, worked on it for almost a decade – not because he was stuck, but because he wanted to get it right. He did. Bard’s production, directed by Louisa Proske, is scenically simple but richly costumed and dramatically effective. And Botstein, head of the American Symphony Orchestra, an impressive cast and excellent Bard Festival Chorale, pleaded for the piece. (How has he languished as many lesser scores by French composers of Chausson’s time – in particular, for me, Massenet – return to international stages?)
Wagner’s influence, in particular “Tristan und Isolde”, hangs over “King Arthus”. Chausson was a devotee of Wagner, no doubt: for his honeymoon in 1883, he took his wife to the Bayreuth festival to see “Parsifal”. While working on “Arthus,” Chausson exchanged letters with his friend Debussy, who had a love-hate relationship with Wagner. In a letter, Chausson wrote that the subject matter similarity between his opera and “Tristan” – both concerning overwhelming feelings of love that lead to betrayals of marriage and duty – wouldn’t matter to him if he “could only tell me. successfully de-Wagneriser. “
Wagnerian threads run through the music, up to “Tristan” pattern notes and the “Tristan” chord. Yet the score also appears as an heir to the French heritage in which Chausson was born, in particular Franck and Massenet. His use of thick chromatic harmonies is less dark and elusive, more playful and radiant than Wagner’s writing. The score is rich in lyrical stretches that almost turn into a song.
The orchestral prelude is initially full of swashbuckling music that suggests the triumphal battle that the king’s forces have just fought against the Saxon invaders. We meet Arthur, with his wife, Guinevere, by his side, presiding over a celebration meeting of his court. Baritone Norman Garrett, dressed in elegant robes and a gold crown, looked and sounded splendid like Arthur. His voice, deep but capable of lightness in its highs, easily conveyed authority and dignity. Yet even in his opening monologue, he probed the music for clues to the king’s vulnerability.
When the king designates the valiant knight Lancelot (ardent tenor Matthew White) as a “true winner,” the other knights mumble their resentments, especially the menacing Mordred (Justin Austin, a young baritone). In this tale of history, Lancelot and Guinevere are already deeply consumed by illicit love. As Queen, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke brings brilliant sound and a touch of self-defeating volatility to her vocals. Unlike Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, this couple are fully aware that they are betraying their king and his oaths. But, as Guinevere sings, “love is the only law”.
The singers devoted themselves to an important project, learning these demanding roles for this production. Botstein’s enthusiasm for a score he has long championed manifested itself – sometimes too much. By bringing out the copper richness and intensity of the music, he sometimes lets the orchestra dominate the singers. Still, he brought urgent rhythm and color to that nearly three-hour score.
The opera ends with a series of death scenes, one for each of the main characters – a dramatically risky move that Chausson skillfully handles. In a daringly slow and spellbinding monologue, Guinevere chokes on her own long hair. Lancelot, having offered no defense in a battle with former comrades avenging their king, returns to the mortally wounded castle, living long enough to beg Arthur for forgiveness in anguished but noble phrases.
A shaken Arthur, seeking death, is greeted by a group of celestial maidens who offer to take him – not to death, but to eternal sleep. Chausson transformed this sequence into a shimmering and harmonically lush double choir, performed here by choristers dressed in celestial white dresses. “Your name may perish,” they say to Arthur, but “your ideas are immortal”.
Hopefully this production also helps Chausson’s opera thrive.
Until Sunday at Bard College; fishercenter.bard.edu. Also posted on this website on July 28.
#Review #Rare #King #Arthur #Opera #Bard