Ernest Chausson - Le Roi Arthus
L'Opéra National de Paris, 2015
Philippe Jordan, Graham Vick, Sophie Koch, Thomas Hampson, Roberto Alagna, Alexandre Duhamel, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, François Lis, Peter Sidhom, Cyrille Dubois, Tiago Matos, Ugo Rabec
Culturebox - 28 May 2015
There's nothing too complicated about Graham Vick and Paul Brown's concept and sets for this production of Chausson's Le Roi Arthus (King Arthur) at the Paris Opera. Evidently with Vick, it's not going to be period King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table wearing suits of armour, but then Chausson's opera has very little to do with the myth or even adherence to traditional characterisation. Except in one respect. It's really nothing more than a variation on the common opera theme of the illicit love affair that betrays a king, and really if it wasn't set as King Arthur, the characters here could be replaced by others without any significant changes. Like King Marke, Tristan and Isolde for example.
That hardly seems like a fair comparison, but it's a valid one, since Chausson's opera - his only opera and one that is rarely performed - does wear its Wagnerian influences heavily. Lancelot's love affair with the Queen Guinevere takes place in secret in the second scene of Act I, the couple intensely wrapped up in their love for one another as Lyonnel (Kurwenal) looks on worriedly, aware of the consequences of them being discovered by the king. Their declarations of love approaches a peak where they sing of their profound divine ecstasy and how the rest of the world seems like a confused dream, just as Mordred (Melot) rushes in, catches them in the act and is struck down by Tristan... er, I mean Lancelot.
Despite the evident aspirations to match these sentiments with Wagnerian through composition and sweeping crescendos of large orchestral forces; despite a few Ho-he-Ho-ho's and a labourer (Steersman) lament at the start of Act I, Chausson's score never even comes close to the soaring transcendence and ecstasy of Wagner. The comparison that is begged is unfortunate, for were it not for a libretto that is rather dull and domestic, having none of the profundity of Wagner's philosophical weight and poetic expression, Le Roi Arthus does actually have a musical force of its own or of a particular French post-Wagnerian tradition (Franck, Massenet) where it sits rather better.
The disparity between the musical qualities of Le Roi Arthus and the narrative of the libretto are unfortunately all too apparent in the production at the Opéra National de Paris. Graham Vick can't find any real conceptual element to grasp onto other than the rather domestic nature of the drama. Arthur's Britons are more like Glastonbury hippies who, after defeating the Saxons, rope their swords into a circle and build a flat-pack house for their King. Scattered books speak of the disarray that follows, and a red plastic sofa speaks of the lust that upsets the cosy atmosphere of the happy family. Is there any deeper level to be drawn out here that Vick is missing by not setting it in Arthurian times? I don't think so.
It's well worth applying more attention however to Philippe Jordan's conducting of the orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris. Divided into three acts with two scenes each, all separated by symphonic interludes, Jordan reveals more than the superficial Wagner similarities that the narrative leads one to hear. Aside from the symphonic interludes, the scoring and performance of Arthur in Act II, Scene II suggests a closer affinity with Golaud from Pelléas et Mélisande, or even King Phillip II from Verdi's Don Carlo. That kind of wealth of influence and reference is there in Chausson's scoring, and Jordan brings out the whole dynamic and range of the possibilities that are there in the music.
If only it was all put in the service of something worthwhile, as the characterisation in Le Roi Arthus seems to have no real-life foundation or insight of its own. Arthur has none of the complexity of Phillip II and is indeed little more than the kind ruler (in chunky wool cardigan) suffering the anguish of suspicions and cruelly betrayed by his closest friend and his wife. Lancelot is all conflicted between love and duty, struggling over questions of honour and nobility, but prone to being swayed by the machinations of a woman. And, yes, that's about the level that Guinevere operates on, having no qualms about her actions, able to brazenly carry on with Lancelot and lie to Arthur, manipulating both men away from their finer nature.
Within the restrictions of those poorly defined personality traits, the cast nonetheless perform admirably, all of them well suited to this repertoire. Written as it is, you can even indulge Le Roi Arthus as being the only way you'll ever hear Sophie Koch and Roberto Alagna singing Tristan und Isolde. Koch fares better in the Wagnerian stakes as she has such experience and ability in the mezzo-soprano roles. She brings a thrilling intensity here to a wonderfully scored but ultimately rather thankless role. While it's clear that Alagna could never sustain the demands of a Tristan and is stretched at the more intense parts of Le Roi Arthus, he's in his element as the romantic hero and consequently terrific in the main as Lancelot. Thomas Hampson's voice isn't as robust as it once was, but he is still commanding here as Arthur and particularly impressive in his 'Ella gaimmai m'amo' scene.
It's in Arthur that there is some room to expand on the themes of Le Roi Arthus as being a little more than run of the mill domestic drama. The aforementioned scene does see Arthur's world implode, his abandonment by Guinevere and his betrayal by Lancelot cutting deeply, hitting a strong king at his weak point. In it he sees the collapse of everything he has strived to achieve, leaving the way open only to death. He calls out to Merlin, seeking power beyond what is human, but Chausson's score - as rich as it is and as all Parsifal-like as it gets to in the Third Act finale, is inadequate to take the piece to that other level where that work, Tristan und Isolde, Don Carlos and Pelléas et Mélisande all reside.