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Roi Arthus, Chausson: ARTHUS

Le Roi Arthus

Composer : Ernest Chausson
Librettist : Ernest Chausson
Venue and Dates : Edinburgh Festival Theatre (Concert performance)
22 August 2000
Conductor : Frédéric Chaslin
Performers :

Arthus : Simon Keenlyside
Genièvre : Françoise Pollet
Lancelot : Hubert Delamboye
Merlin : Christopher Maltman
Allan : Neal Davies
Lyonnel : Marc Laho
Farmer : Campbell Russell
Groom : David Morrison
Soldiers :  Declan McCusker / Ovidiu Haidu / Andrew Hopwood / Phillip Casperd
Scottish Opera Chorus
Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Notes :

Soundbites

Wagnerian heights at base camp

Rupert Christiansen reviews the Le Roi Arthus, etc, at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre

…So thanks are due to the Edinburgh Festival for presenting back-to-back concert performances of Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus (first staged in 1903) and Fauré’s Pénélope (1913), even if neither work emerged as more than a historical curiosity. What cripples them, primarily, is their inability to find a way of pacing the Wagnerian form of conversational opera: both pieces lack the tense ebb and flow that drives Pelléas onwards, and neither of them builds the sort of theatrical rhythm that keeps an audience’s attention riveted.

Chausson’s score is positively turgid, and so deeply under the shadow of Tristan in terms of mood, theme and narrative (Arthur’s discovery of the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere) that it seems merely imitative. At least Fauré’s treatment of the even older story of Ulysses’s return to Ithaca finds an idiom of its own, as translucently neo-classical as a poem by Valèry, with shimmering wisps of melody evoking the sun-dappled Mediterranean.

The performances in Edinburgh were on the whole adequate. In Le Roi Arthus, Frédéric Chaslin’s conducting drew enticingly lush colours from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra without sketching quite enough light and shade. Françoise Pollet and Hubert Delamboye proved a charmless pair of adulterers, squawking and hooting through their interminable duets, but Simon Keenlyside and Christopher Maltman made the most of the opera’s finest scene, a dreamlike encounter between Arthur and Merlin.

As Fauré’s heroine, Michelle DeYoung produced the appropriate regality and volume, even if she didn’t rise to much in the way of emotional characterisation – perhaps this was Fauré’s fault as much as hers. The role of her errant husband was sturdily sung by tenor Michael Schade; and Jean-Yves Ossonce, conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, was alert to the subtleties of Fauré’s harmony and orchestration.

I rather wish that some gorgeous bauble of Massenet’s (satirically nicknamed Mademoiselle Wagner by wags of the day) had been programmed instead of the plodding Le Roi Arthus.

Rodney Milnes for The Times, 24th August 2000

FESTIVALS allow the sort of programming that would be too risky in normal circumstances, and to follow Scottish Opera’s Rheingold with a concert performance of Chausson’s rarely performed Le Roi Arthus, so often written down – if not written off – as French Wagner, was an imaginative stroke.

Ernest Chausson was born in 1855 into comfortable circumstances (he never needed to earn a living) and died 44 years later after a bicycling accident. At the age of 24 he heard Tristan und Isolde which made him determined to be a composer. He wrote his own libretto for Arthus and laboured over the score for nine years. It was posthumously premiered in Brussels in 1903.

The parallels with Tristan are inescapable. Lancelot and Guinevere equal Tristan and Isolde; King Arthur equals King Mark. One significant difference is that Guinevere is a tough little minx, exploiting the wimpish Lancelot for her own ends.

The big problem is that Chausson couldn’t decide whether the opera was an everyday tale of chivalric adultery or the collapse of Camelot and the Arthurian ideal: both themes never quite meld in a wordy, clumsily constructed piece.

Yet there is a wealth of fine music – hence Arthus’s adherents – once you have got used to the fact that there are endless near-quotes from Tristan and the Ring, much tortuous chromatic harmony, much Wagner-coloured instrumentation, including obsessive use of bass clarinet. The love duets are luscious, there’s a fine scene in which Merlin-Erda prophesies Arthurdämmerung and a glorious finale in which Arthur sinks beneath the waters with backing from heavenly choirs. There is also standard operatic sound and fury in the public scenes, though you feel Chausson’s heart wasn’t really in it. The vocal writing is pretty impractical even by Wagnerian standards.

Lancelot is a sort of conflation of Tannhäuser and Berlioz’s Aeneas, and on Tuesday the Dutch tenor Hubert Delamboye coped heroically in good, clear French. Françoise Pollet, a late replacement as Guinevere, was not in her easiest voice, but she has the style at her fingertips. The best singing came from Simon Keenlyside in the high-flying baritone title role, especially eloquent in his scene with Christopher Maltman’s ideally grave Merlin. Neal Davies stood out in two small roles, and the Scottish Opera Chorus worked themselves half to death.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra was equally fervent under Frédéric Chaslin’s direction. A long evening, and if UK companies won’t rush to stage Arthus, thank you to the Festival for showing us why.

A night at the round table

Andrew Clements finds why Le Roi Arthus should stay forgotten

The Guardian, August 26, 2000

http://www.guardian.co.uk/saturday_review/story/0,,359168,00.html

…The starting point for the story is the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere and their betrayal by the ambitious Mordred. That occupies the first of the three acts, and the rest of the opera deals with the catastrophic aftermath, not only for them – she kills herself, he dies in battle against Arthur’s forces – but for the community of the Round Table. Arthur’s world is destroyed, and he takes his leave in the final scene.

The parallels with Tristan und Isolde are obvious; Lancelot and Guinevere’s big love duet is even interrupted by a servant. But here the hero is Arthur, while the illicit lovers make a deeply unsympathetic couple: Guinevere is a manipulative monster, and Lancelot hopelessly weak-willed, caught between his love for her and his loyalty to his king.

It’s Arthur and his tragedy that brings the best music out of Chausson too. The first act is a mess. The love duet sprawls, the score is a noisy mélange of Tristan, The Ring and the melodic chromaticisms of Chausson’s teacher, César Franck. But after that the musical world shifts. Parsifal becomes the reference point, and Arthur’s major scenes – his despair at discovering the truth about his wife and best friend, and his encounter with Merlin, who forsees the destruction of the Round Table – have a numinous power. Though some of the earlier brashness returns in the final act, and Guinevere’s death scene goes on far too long, the ending is superb, modelled on the Good Friday music from Parsifal, but rapt, ethereal and totally effective.

It’s a hard work to cast nowadays – the role of Lancelot needs a tenor of heroic stature, and Guinevere has to be sung by a soprano with the power and projection of a mezzo in the middle registers. Hubert Delamboye and Francoise Pollet weren’t convincing here. It was left to Simon Keenlyside as an Arthur of heroic timbre and presence, and Christopher Maltman as a grave, sonorous Merlin to provide the real frissons of the evening. Frédéric Chaslin conducted the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the chorus of Scottish Opera with the brisk efficiency that a bit too much of the score needs.

Worth hearing, certainly. Worth seeing on stage, I’m not so sure.

George Hall, Opera News, December 2000

Echoes of Wagner were heard at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre on August 22, though the composer named in the program was Ernest Chausson. This gifted, often highly individual musician died four years before his only completed opera, Le Roi Arthus, was given its premiere in Brussels, in 1903. Just as Debussy sought to de-Wagnerize Pelléas et Mélisande, so Chausson expressed a desire to take Wagner out of his setting of the King Arthur story. Had he actually done so, it would have left little to listen to. One after another, his musical ideas offer pale imitations of Wagnerian motifs, often starting out almost as quotations before veering off into anonymity. The result is deeply unsatisfactory and very disappointing to those who know and love Chausson’s characteristic songs and larger vocal pieces (such as the fragrantly nostalgic Poème de l’Amour et de la Mer).

Frédéric Chaslin conducted the Chorus of Scottish Opera and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in a concert presentation of this bloated would-be epic. The announced Genièvre (alias Guinevere), Christine Brewer, cancelled, and Françoise Pollet filled the gap with only partial success. The middle of her mezzo-ish soprano made an impact, but the top and bottom registers sounded weak. Simon Keenlyside put everything he had into the all-too-noble Arthus, though the role clearly taxed him vocally. Dutch tenor Hubert Delamboye offered brilliant, forward tone as the guilt-ridden adulterer Lancelot, the Tristan figure in this familiar Wagnerian love-triangle. Christopher Maltman sang a lyrical Merlin — a part Chausson oddly gave to a baritone rather than the more obvious bass. None of the artists’ efforts were enough to salvage the score.

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