Chausson’s ‘Arthus,’ Updated to WWI, Can’t Shed ‘Tristan’

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Merlin (Nicolas Cavallier) appears in an apple tree when Arthus calls (Alain Kaiser) in Chausson's 'Le Roi Arthus' by the Opéra National du Rhin (Alain Kaiser)
Merlin (Nicolas Cavallier) appears in an apple tree when Arthus (Andrew Schroeder) calls in Chausson’s ‘Le Roi Arthus’.
(Opéra National du Rhin production photos by Alain Kaiser)
By Susan Brodie

STRASBOURG – L’Opéra National du Rhin scooped one of the most-anticipated rarities of the Opéra de Paris 2014-15 season: Ernest Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus. But Keith Warner’s mixed-era production of the beautiful score was hampered by cartoonish or absent direction and a cast that struggled with Wagnerian vocal demands.

With ‘Arthus,’ Strasbourg got the jump on Paris. (Susan Brodie)

While the Bastille’s upcoming production is generating interest as a showcase for Roberto Alagna, it’s not surprising that the Strasbourg-based Opéra National du Rhin should get the jump on a significant revival. Under general director Marc Clémeur, this regional company has been focusing on significant French repertoire within a program that is just as international as – and even more adventurous than – the larger company based in the capital. In the current season of eight opera productions, six of them new, three are devoted to French repertoire, including Le Roi Arthus.

Strasbourg, France
Strasbourg draws opera lovers from Germany, Switzerland. (Brodie)

Although Strasbourg is relatively small (under one million), as home to the European Parliament and the Court of Human Rights, it has a large international presence. Strasbourg is close to several German and Swiss towns; nearly one-fourth of the tickets are bought by foreigners (supertitles are in French and German). In addition, the opera is one of a nationwide network of regional theaters dating from a national reorganization of cultural institutions during the 1970s. The opera, ballet, and opera studio are based respectively in Strasbourg, Mulhouse, and Colmar, and each opera production plays in at least two of these towns. So the theater draws on a wide regional population, a cosmopolitan audience with an appetite for less conventional fare – like revivals of substantial but forgotten works by major French composers.

Spotlight on the Composer

Amédée-Ernest Chausson (Wiki Commons)
Amédée-Ernest Chausson (Wiki Commons)

Ernest Chausson (1855-99) was something of a late bloomer who died young, from a bicycle accident at the age of 44. A well-off, mostly self-taught composer, his formal training consisted primarily of a few months at the Conservatoire National as a pupil of Massenet and César Franck. He served as treasurer of the Société Nationale de Musique, for 50 years the pre-eminent organization for modern French music (motto: “Ars gallica”). He lived comfortably with his family in northwestern Paris, and frequently entertained friends like Duparc, Debussy, Mallarmé, Albéniz, and Fauré.

Chausson’s output was relatively small but choice: 39 numbered works, including songs, orchestral tone poems, a violin concerto, and the orchestral song cycles Poème de l’amour et de la mer and Chanson perpetuelle. His style is identifiably French in its delicacy and colorations, but Le Roi Arthus also shows the then-inevitable influence of Wagner. Chausson attended the premiere of Parsifal at Bayreuth and also saw Tristan und Isolde on the Green Hill. In Le Roi Arthus he created a French conflation of the two myths, with his own libretto in a pseudo-archaic French. The result is a succession of atmospheric tableaux, not unlike Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, another medieval tale of forbidden love that ends badly.

The opera finally had a well-received premiere at La Monnaie in 1903, but never became a repertoire staple. Le Roi Arthus was revived in Brussels on the 100th anniversary of its first production. Another production was mounted at the Edinburgh Festival, and in 2005 it was performed at the Bard Summer Festival and recorded. Now two French companies are reviving the work in the same year.

Was it worth the wait?

Unable to believe his knight betrayed him, Arthus (Andrew Schroeder) seeks advice from Merlin's ghost (Nicolas Cavallier). (Alain Kaiser-ONR)
Arthus (A. Schroeder) seeks advice from Merlin’s ghost (N. Cavallier).

Chausson’s plot both imitates and departs from Tristan und Isolde. Arthus, Lancelot, Genièvre, and Mordred stand in for Marke, Tristan, Isolde, and Melot, as the king betrayed by his most trusted knight and by his wife, who in turn are betrayed by a jealous knight. But in Chausson’s version Lancelot, unlike Tristan, is overwhelmed with remorse, and, like Énée in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, abandons his beloved for the sake of honor and friendship, leaving the despondent woman to end her life. And where Tristan is driven by unwavering yearning, Arthus is more episodic, both musically and dramatically. The plot changes direction when Lancelot’s irresistible passion for Genièvre is replaced by remorse over betraying his king and friend. This interrupts the narrative and musical trajectory which Wagner, in contrast, so successfully builds to a climax.

Chausson’s love-hate relationship with Wagner is reflected in the push-pull between Gallic orchestral transparency and sweeping bombast. Strong echoes – almost interrupted quotes – of Wagner’s harmonic language alternate with extended tonal sequences and repetitions of themes that sound more like a 1950s Hollywood action movie than a Jungian drama. The score has many beautiful moments, but would have benefitted from judicious cuts. As it was, extended dialogues or monologues tended to incite either exasperation with the character or heavy eyelids.

Marianne, the symbolic French warrior maiden, oversees an updated WWI setting of 'Le roi Arthus' in Strasbourg. (Alain Kaiser)
A symbolic French warrior maiden oversees the updated WWI setting.

The Arthur legend in Chausson’s scenario poses staging challenges never tested during Chausson’s lifetime. Wanting to stress the military character of the Round Table, director Keith Warner moved the medieval setting to the time of World War I. This resulted in both striking images and odd anachronisms, beginning with the painted French flag draped over the stage. The physical Round Table was set up in a 20th-century war room filled with French soldiers, some wearing armor over their blue uniforms. Lancelot and Genièvre’s night of love took place in front of an enormous round pink pouffe rotating around a giant tricolor-lit figure of Marianne, the symbolic French warrior maiden, who sported a weapons-grade bosom.

Lancelot (Andrew Richards) has an attack of conscience in the munitions forest primeval.
Lancelot (Andrew Richards) agonizes in a munitions forest primeval.

The forest primeval of Act II became a munitions factory, with rows of bombs standing in for trees. Against this backdrop, Lancelot confided his misgivings to Genièvre, and Arthus received his visitation from Merlin, descending headfirst in an upside-down apple tree. At the act’s end, when Arthus faced the truth of his cuckoldry and vowed revenge, the back wall parted to reveal the nose of a modern bomber plane and a nuclear warhead descended from above. (Nuclear rage – get it? Titters rippled through the theater.) The Act III seaside plain was rendered as a Quonset hut hospital, which gave way to a cemetery.

To be fair, Warner avoided violently egregious régie mannerisms, but his chosen setting transported the legend to a time and place when combat was suddenly massively more devastating, and dalliance less so than in Arthur’s time, making nonsense of the assumptions underpinning the story. Further, apparently minimal personal direction left the singers chewing the scenery without guidance in fleshing out their sketchily drawn characters. So Arthur was heroic and gullible, Lancelot impetuous and irresolute, and Genièvre clingy and shrewish. In spite of Warner’s declared intention to avoid a Monty Python effect, that, unfortunately, is what he achieved.

Final scene of 'Le Roi Arthus,' with a view of Montsalvat
In the finale of ‘Arthus,’  Montsalvat casts a celestial glow over a field of crosses.

For all the disappointing and silly moments, Arthus’ apotheosis in the final scene was saccharine but glorious. After the king has at last forgiven the dying Lancelot, five singing nurses arrive to exchange his soldier’s uniform for a full suit of armor. The Quonset-hut hospital disappears, giving way to a cemetery, a Flanders Field of outsized white crosses, poppy wreaths, and white-clad warriors. An invisible celestial choir warbles to harp accompaniment, while Arthus makes his way upstage and a page places Arthus’ sword and shield on a statue of a mounted warrior. In the final tableau, Arthus stands silhouetted before a glowing image of Montsalvat while the enraptured crowd gazes at the statue as the lights fade. It was pure Hollywood kitsch, and the audience, at least those who hadn’t fled at the second intermission, loved it. I did, too.

Lancelot (Andrew Richards), Arthus (Andrew Schroeder) and Genièvre (Elizabete Matos), the eternal triangle.
Lancelot (Richards, left) betrays Arthus (Schroeder), loves Genièvre (Matos).

The cast did as good a job as possible, given an apparent scarcity of individual direction and, or, for  the most part, voices not quite of the needed Wagnerian size. As Arthus, American baritone Andrew Schroeder, who sang the role at Bard, cut a fine figure as the heroic young king and sang with a firm and attractive — but not huge – sound. Andrew Richards as Lancelot had a smooth, focused tenor sound, though less legato singing at times would have expressed the knight’s impetuosity more persuasively. Soprano Elisabete Matos (Genièvre) was the only voice with the desired heft; her upper notes were too often squally and out of control, but her warm lower register gave poignancy to her death scene, which she rendered with dignity despite having to hang herself from her hair from atop a Quonset hut. Rising young French bass Bernard Imbert, as Mordred, tended to shout, perhaps not inappropriate for Arthus’s disgruntled nephew.

Secondary characters performed decently, with special notice to young Jérémy Duffau, whose second-act worker’s song displayed a promising tenor. The chorus of the Opéra National du Rhin performed yeoman’s work in the extended choruses, though their acting consisted mostly of milling around. Jacques Lacombe, music director of the New Jersey Symphony and earlier in his career a champion of Chausson’s work, coaxed an energetic and colorful performance from the Orchestre Symphonique de Mulhouse, despite some wayward intonation. Though the evening was frustrating, it will be interesting to see what director Graham Vick and conductor Philippe Jordan will make of the work in Paris next spring.

Le Roi Arthus travels to La Filature in Mulhouse on April 11 and 13. Tickets: click here, then click on desired performance date. The next production of l’Opéra National du Rhin is John Adams’s Doctor Atomic.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!