Chausson - Le Roi Arthus

ONP Bastille, Paris, Monday May 25 2015

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production: Graham Vick. Sets and costumes: Paul Brown. Lighting: Adam Silverman. Genièvre: Sophie Koch. Arthus: Thomas Hampson. Lancelot: Roberto Alagna. Mordred: Alexandre Duhamel. Lyonnel: Stanislas de Barbeyrac. Allan: François Lis. Merlin: Peter Sidhom. Un Laboureur: Cyrille Dubois. Un Chevalier: Tiago Matos. Un Écuyer: Ugo Rabec. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Chausson
If I seemed reserved in my praise of the musical side of Sunday's Ballo in Brussels, I can be quite unreserved about that of Le Roi Arthus last night: it was simply magnificent, as magnificent, sensitive yet generous a performance as you could hope to hear. Having said that, what can I usefully add? (Eight more paragraphs, perhaps?)

Though I've seen it before in Brussels, like most of us, I imagine, I know the work mainly from Jordan senior's recording with Teresa Żylis-Gara. That being so, I was surprised to see Sophie Koch cast as Genièvre. She brings a dark, mezzo timbre to the part and of course strains at the very top notes in act two, but there's only a sprinkling of those, and her commitment, intelligence and musicanship carry her through (despite the unglamorous, middle-class-housewife costume imposed on her: a lacy white summer dress and irredeemably sensible, stout-heeled sandals).

Anyone who wonders if Alagna might now be past his peak can feel reassured. Not only does he look, physically, as if he's found some sort of elixir of youth (so you think: I'll have some of what he's having, please); but, provided you're OK with his now-darker, smokier sound, he might well be singing better than ever. And if his voice is darker and smokier, it still has the projecting edge to carry and support his excellent diction: no need to glance at the supertitles. His was a heroic performance (Lancelot gets lots to sing) and the duets, even with the pair of them (and Genièvre in her stout, sensible sandals) rolling in the grass like teenagers, were marvellous.

Also, anyone who thinks Thomas Hampson is showing signs of wear can think again. Well, perhaps there are signs of his lower range diminishing; perhaps the one or two very high notes were strained; but his performance was magnificently acted (see? magnificent again) and musically near-impeccable. The scene where he shares his disappointments with a tearful Merlin was, thanks also to Peter Sidhom's abounding sincerity as he wept, moving indeed.

Glastonbury Tor
So not only did we have the best available cast for the principles; the secondary roles were unusually well cast too, giving us a chance to admire Cyrille Dubois' bright Laboureur and Stanislas de Barbeyrac's softer, elegant Lyonnel. Both had excellent diction. Even the smallest roles were filled seriously - and with a degree of charm.

The chorus was on blistering form, and the orchestra at its very best: magnificent again, loving, sensitive yet generous under Jordan junior, and standing in the pit, arms raised to applaud him and the cast loudly at the curtain calls - to a triumph in the house of a kind we rarely see these days. The expression is, I think, "in a zone" - this was the kind of fully-committed, unhesitant and unstinting playing that makes you very nearly forget there's a production going on around it.

Which in this case was possibly a good thing. Not that Graham Vick's staging wasn't bright and fresh and well-rehearsed. The trouble was it wasn't really comprehensible. The curtain went up on a gathering, against a photographic backdrop of Glastonbury Tor, of what looked like (a) the kind of New-Age, vegetarian tree-huggers who might take an interest in age-old legends (and listen to Celtic folk songs or live in the Triangle); (b) husky outdoor types with hiking boots and teeshirts under layers of warm, weatherproof clothing (Arthus, Lancelot and the knights); and (c) beer-bellied builders in hard hats, whose wives (lots of crochet, and yellow flowers in their hair) brought them baskets of lunch. A typical west-of-England (or West Wales) crowd, these days, I suppose. But the men were arranged in a circle, holding swords to the ground, while the floor and two walls of a prefabricated house were lowered for assembly - hence the presence of Bob the Builder. Once the bookshelves were installed, Genièvre was borne in aloft on a strikingly ugly, boxy, red vinyl settee, and a coffee table (round, geddit?) was set up with a vase of flowers and a picture of the happy couple (she and Arthus). The house was encircled by swords planted in the stage, roped together.

Roberto Alagna
As the opera progressed and the idyll (so we presumed) faded - and after Lancelot and Genièvre had rolled around in the rectangular patch of artificial biodiversity to the right - the Glastonbury backdrop ended up blackened (as did Genièvre's lacy frock and indeed everything else), the house, on its side in act two, was finally overturned and charred, and the glossy red settee went up in flames (to the audience's relief, quipped one critic in the press). Who was this Arthus then? A bookish king in his prefab suburban castle? A professor? Just an ordinary husband? He didn't actually smoke a pipe, but in his cable-knit cardigan he might well have sucked on one as he took another bardish volume off the shelves. What was the Glastonbury gathering up to? Some kind of re-enactment, as people do of battles, or west-country fête with a nod at local Arthurian legend? How did they end up shortly after in rival gangs, the rebels' bare torsos smeared with blood, battling to the death with swords? Why were they referred to as knights at all? As a friend remarked, it's no longer really PC to ask these questions; and certainly I'm no fan of "traditional" stagings and every inch a fan or Warlikowski; and indeed I could see that there was something here about the vanity of ideals in a wicked world; and yes, it was well directed.

But it was illegible. Not that that mattered, because it was simply swept away by the music. Magnificent.

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