Friday 27 July 2012

Le Roi malgre lui - time for a re-assessment?

Chabrier's Le Roi malgre lui has always rather reminded me of Bernstein's Candide. A work admired for its music but which struggled with the text, going through a variety of versions. But where Bernstein re-worked the music, and lived long enough to settle on a viable version and to record the work, Chabrier hardly tinkered with the music, other people worked on various versions of the opera and the composer died too young to see the opera to its perfect form.

There were two versions produced in his life-time, that of the premiere in 1887 and the 1888 performances at the Theatre Lyrique in the Place du Chatelet. The 1888 performances seem to have included cuts, but in fact Chabrier himself decided to drop Alexina's aria as it held up the action. But 1888 saw the libretto reworked and it was again in 1929 when Albert Carre produced his own version for the Opera Comique. In fact, it is this 1929 version which is generally used; Carre changed all the text but not the music. Alas, Carre's improvements hardly make dramaturgical sense of the plot either.

Other people have had a go too. Jeremy Sams and Michael Wilcox produced an entirely new version for Opera North and at Lyons, Laurent Pelly staged the whole thing as a rehearsal. In Grange Park, Simon Callow attempted to play the piece straight, resulting in an honorable failure.

The failure seems to be that the very structure of the piece is a farce with too many doors and quick changes. Chabrier's brilliant witty music is intimately tied to this plot. The music isn't Wagnerian, but Chabrier himself was; he taught himself orchestration by copying out Tannhauser. So when you try and unpick the plot, the whole structure fails. Re-writes end up almost as complicated or with music which no-longer reflects the dramatic situation.

The text is based on a vaudeville by Marguerite-Louise Virginie Ancelot, now has anyone every exhumed this I wonder? Emile de Najaz and Paul Burani (experienced librettists both) attempted to transform it into an opera, and Chabrier seems to have taken great care over exactly what the text was that he set (Definitely a case for looking at the original version, I should think). The result was a mess.

Quite why is difficult to fathom as both were experienced. They may have been hampered by the fact that originally it was going to be a rather buffo opera, but the broad comedy had to be toned down and spoken dialogue introduced when it was taken up by the Opera Comique.

However, the author of the article on Chabrier in Grove's Dictionary, suggests that the problem may be the work's eclecticism, its conflict of styles. That the libretto, with its farcical comings and goings, made a perfectly acceptable operetta. If Chabrier had produced less elaborate music, people would not have thought anymore about it. But Chabrier's brilliantly eclectic score sits uneasily in our minds with the farce. Its very eclecticism is its downfall.

Still, whatever the reason, Chabrier brought in the poet Jean Richepin to help tidy up the work, and even ended up working on it himself. He wrote on the final manuscript C'est la Genese du Roi malgre lui. Nous trouvons la un peu de tout; une bouillabaisse de Najac et Burani qui fait cuire Richepin et dans laquelle je colle des epices. (The genesis of Le Roi malgre lui. We find a little of everything; a boullabaise by Najac and Burani, cooked by Richepin into which I threw some spices).

In 1887, after three performances the Opera Comique burned down, though eventually the company continued elsewhere and it was taken up the year after at the Theatre Lyrique. Then barely a sniff in Paris until 1929.

Now the piece is getting another chance. There is a new production of the opera at this year's Bard Summerscape opening on 27 July 2012 and running until 8 August. (The Bard Music Festival takes place at the Fisher Center for the performing arts at Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, on the east bank of the Hudson Valley, 90 miles from New York).

The production will be coming to the Wexford Festival in Ireland this Autumn. The director is Thaddeus Strassberger (who directed Les Huguenots at Bard in 2009) with Henri played by Liam Bonner who will be travelling with the production to Wexford. We are promised a staging of the original 1887 version. It will be interesting to see if this ill-fated work has its time.

You may be wondering why bother? Then go out and buy, beg, borrow or steal a copy of Charles Dutoit's 1984 recording with Gino Quilco and Barbara Hendricks. There is no dialogue, just the music and each number is a gem. (Hear some of it on Youtube). A quick glance at Amazon suggests that this recording is still available, and still the only recording of the work.

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