ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — It took just two words over the loudspeakers for the audience at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College on Sunday evening to break into vigorous applause: “Welcome back.”
Welcome back, indeed, to Ernest Chausson’s seldom heard opera “Le Roi Arthus,” being presented as part of Bard’s SummerScape festival. And welcome back to many in the audience, for whom being in a theater for live opera with a full orchestra and chorus, after such a long deprivation, was truly something to cheer.
“Le Roi Arthus,” based on the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, proved a powerful work for this fraught, polarized moment in American life. It is the story of an idealistic ruler who fails to bring about the era of enlightenment he strives for, but whose principles will endure, as an angelic chorus assures him at the end of an often ravishing score. The production is the latest project in the conductor Leon Botstein’s long campaign to break classical music from its fixation on repertory staples and call attention to neglected works.
This remarkable opera, first performed in Brussels in 1903, four years after its composer’s death in a cycling accident at 44, is especially deserving. Chausson, who also wrote the libretto, labored on it for almost a decade — not because he was stuck, but because he wanted to get it right. He did. The Bard production, directed by Louisa Proske, is scenically spare but richly costumed and dramatically effective. And Botstein, leading the American Symphony Orchestra, an impressive cast and the excellent Bard Festival Chorale, made a compelling case for the piece. (How has it languished when many lesser scores by French composers of Chausson’s era — especially, for me, Massenet — keep returning to international stages?)
The influence of Wagner, especially “Tristan und Isolde,” looms over “Le Roi Arthus.” Chausson was a Wagner devotee, no question: For his honeymoon in 1883, he took his wife to the Bayreuth Festival to see “Parsifal.” As he worked on “Arthus,” Chausson exchanged letters with his friend Debussy, who had a love-hate relationship with Wagner. In one letter Chausson wrote that the similarity of subject matter between his opera and “Tristan” — both concerning overpowering feelings of love that lead to betrayals of marriage and duty — would not matter to him if he “could only successfully de-Wagnerize myself.”
Wagnerian strands run through the music, even hints of motifs from “Tristan” and the so-called “Tristan” chord. Yet the score also comes across as beholden to the French heritage Chausson was born into, especially Franck and Massenet. His use of thick chromatic harmonies is less dark and elusive, more ludic and radiant, than Wagner’s writing. The score is rich with lyrical stretches that almost break into song.
The orchestral prelude teems, at first, with swashbuckling music that suggests the triumphant battle the king’s forces have just waged over the invading Saxons. We meet Arthur, with his wife, Guinevere, at his side, presiding over a celebratory gathering of his court. The baritone Norman Garrett, in elegant robes and gold crown, looked and sounded splendid as Arthur. His voice, deep-set but capable of lightness in its high range, easily conveyed authority and dignity. Yet even in his opening monologue he plumbed the music for hints of the king’s vulnerability.
When the king singles out the valiant knight Lancelot (the ardent tenor Matthew White) as a “true victor,” the other knights mutter their resentments, especially the menacing Mordred (Justin Austin, a youthful baritone). In this telling of the story, Lancelot and Guinevere are already deeply consumed by illicit love. As the queen, the mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke brings gleaming sound and a touch of self-destructive volatility to her singing. Unlike Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, this couple is fully aware that they are betraying their king and their oaths. But, as Guinevere sings, “love is the only law.”
The singers brought dedication to an important project, learning these demanding roles for this production. Botstein’s enthusiasm for a score he has long championed came through — sometimes too much. In bringing out the brassy richness and intensity of the music, he sometimes let the orchestra overpower the singers. Still, he brought urgent pacing and color to this nearly three-hour score.
The opera ends with a series of death scenes, one for each of the principal characters — a dramatically risky move that Chausson handles deftly. In a daringly slow, mesmerizing monologue, Guinevere strangles herself with her own long hair. Lancelot, having offered no defense in a battle with former comrades who are avenging their king, comes back to the castle mortally wounded, living long enough to ask Arthur’s forgiveness in anguished yet noble phrases
The shaken Arthur, seeking death, is greeted by a group of heavenly maidens who offer to take him away — not to death, but to eternal sleep. Chausson turned this sequence into a shimmering, harmonically lush double chorus, performed here by choristers in celestial white robes. “Your name may perish,” they tell Arthur, but “your ideas are immortal.”
Let’s hope this production helps Chausson’s opera thrive as well.
Le Roi Arthus
Through Sunday at Bard College; fishercenter.bard.edu. Also streamed at that website on July 28.