Chausson – Le Roi Arthus

La Monnaie, Brussels, November 2 2003

Conductor: Daniele Callegari. Production: Matthew Jocelyn. Genièvre: Hélène Bernardy. Arthus: Andrew Schroeder. Lancelot: Klaus Florian Vogt. Mordred: Philippe Georges. Lyonnel: Yves Saelens. Allan: Jacques Does. Merlin: Olivier Lallouette. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

La Monnaie’s website has this to say about Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus (my translation): “It was at the Monnaie [Belgium’s Royal Opera House, in Brussels] that Ernest Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus had its premiere in November 1903. The composer, who was also the librettist of his only opera, took as his source the Arthurian legends. The theme of irresistible passion between Lancelot and Guinevere, the wonderful message of forgiveness and worldly renouncement delivered by Arthur and above all the mystical dimension of the work link it to the symbolist movement then in vogue […] but also to the artistic world of Richard Wagner and, more specifically, Tristan and Parsifal. Chausson’s musical style was also influenced by Wagner while equally marked by French musical impressionism. Both for its musical beauties and its dramatic force, Le Roi Arthus deserves without question a place in the repertoire.”

Is the neglect into which Chausson seems to have fallen due to his early death in a bicycle accident? Had he lived longer, would he have been more famous? The neglect seems unjustified. To those who know only the two famous Poèmes, Le Roi Arthus is proof that his genius was not, after all, limited to a couple of shortish flukes. The music is of very high quality, unmistakeably Wagnerian yet unmistakeably French, recalling both Tristan (or Parsifal, which Chausson saw in Bayreuth) and Pelléas. Dramatically, the opera is relatively static, but no more so than Pelléas; there’s enough of a story, the characters have real personality, the symbolism remains plausible… as theatre, it works.

Why are these French operas of the late 19th and early 20th century now so rarely performed? The first answer that comes to mind is that they’re so hard to sing. Like so much Meyerbeer and Massenet, Le Roi Arthus calls for first-rate singers, with voices relatively high up in their tessitura. A type of French voice that's become rare. The young team singing for this 100th anniversary production in Brussels aren’t all quite up to it. But, as a critic who’d come at his own expense (a critic!) from London said to me at the intermission, “at least they’re doing it.”

American Andrew Schroeder was a magnificent Arthus, a clear, high baritone, right on the note, and an excellent actor. Klaus Florian Vogt was a fairly valiant Lancelot, Hélène Bernardy under-powered as Genièvre, audible in high notes but not in the medium and lower end of the range; both had intonation problems dealing with Chausson’s meandering melodies. The supporting cast were honourable, the chorus firm but sometimes (the tenors) stretched.

But at least they were doing it.

The production sensibly avoided a facsimile of the 1903 production. It was stark and sober, with individually-lit characters (e.g. Arthus alone on his throne in Act 2, a great scene) on an otherwise dark stage, occasional props (a row of perched peacocks, hanging suits or armour…) symbolising the Arthurian aspects, judicious use of a light box: almost a semi-staging, a good choice when the audience needed to concentrate on an unfamiliar work.

I’ll buy it. The problem now seems to be to find a copy on sale…

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