Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Chausson's Le roi Arthus receives its first American staging as part of Bard Summerscape

Henri Albers in the title role of Chausson's Le Roi Arthus in 1903
Henri Albers in the title role of Chausson's Le roi Arthus in 1903

The spectre of Richard Wagner loomed large over late 19th-century French music, whether loved or hated, he certainly was not ignored. And in the opera house, few composers managed to find a successful way to acknowledge his influence and his revolutionary ideas whilst not slipping into simple imitation. 

Ernest Chausson studied with both Jules Massenet and Cesar Franck, and in the 1880s made the pilgrimage to Bayreuth to hear Wagner's operas. From 1886 to 1896, Chausson worked on his own Wagnerian epic, Le Roi Arthus which manages to combine the influences of Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal with that of Chausson's friend and mentor, Cesar Franck.

The music of the opera is luxuriantly gorgeous, though Chausson would probably have been better served by using an experienced librettist rather than writing the text himself. Unfortunately, the opera got a bad start in the world, it languished after Chausson's sudden death in 1899 and was not premiered until 1903 (at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels). By this time, Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande had debuted, showing French composers a radically different response to Wagnerisme, and making Chausson's epic seem old-fashioned. Though, ironically Debussy and Chausson were friends and Debussy gave the older composer advice about Le roi Arthus.

Armin Jordan gave us a ground-breaking recording of the work in 1986, and the work has done moderately well on disc. There have been occasional stagings in Nancy, and Bonn and in 2015 the work finally made its way to Paris (though The Guardian's critic was not particularly thrilled with the production). Now the work is finally getting its first fully staged American presentation, when Bard Summerscape perform the work this Summer as part of the 31st Bard Music Festival, Nadia Boulanger and her world.

Chausson's Le roi Arthus will be directed by Louisa Proske with Norman Garrett in the title role, plus Sasha Cooke as Guinevere and conducted by Leon Botstein. Botstein has history with the work, he conducted it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (and on a 2005 recording) and gave a concert performance at the Lincoln Center in 2001. 

The opera is being staged as part of a festival which will be presenting the music of Nadia and Lili Boulanger alongside that of their friends, colleagues and teachers, as well as looking at Nadia Boulanger's students. Altogether a fascinating mix, but it is the chance to experience Chausson's Le roi Arthus on stage that will attract many people.

Full details from the festival website.

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