Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) wrote only one opera, Le Roi Arthus, which received a rare performance as one of the centerpieces of the Opéra de Paris's season. The promise of the company's publicity photo, showing the ruins of the medieval Abbey of Glastonbury, where King Arthur is supposedly buried, shrouded in fog, was not borne out in the staging by Graham Vick. Marie-Aude Roux called it a "Scottish shower," running both cold and hot, in her review (Le Roi Arthus n’entrera pas dans la légende, May 19) for Le Monde (my translation):
[Vick] preferred to distance his approach and do without the Arthurian legend as much as he could. An unusual way of serving up a little-known work (even if Montpellier, in 1997, and Strasbourg, in 2014, presented staged versions of it), in any case never staged in Paris, where only a concert version was performed on Radiodiffusion française in 1949, then on Radio France in 1981. The duty of presenting the work for its baptism at the Opéra Bastille with, as godparent, a visual world that resonates with the music, should have prevailed.An excerpt of this beautiful score is embedded above. Chausson never got to hear the first performance, in 1903 in Brussels, because he died in a freak fall from a bicycle before it happened. Philippe Jordan conducts, drawing out the French flavors of this Wagner-influenced score, and Roberto Alagna, Thomas Hampson, and Sophie Koch star. Performance continue through June 14, with a broadcast on France Musique on June 6, so we will hopefully get the chance to hear it in rebroadcast.
Instead of which, we had to suffer through the sets of a model kit universe, with its snippets of buildings, its 1970s furniture, the pragmatic ugliness of odd costumes taken directly from a Ken Loach film on the homeless. King Arthur's half-built mobile home is dismantled bit by bit as his Arthurian ideal -- the spiritual harmony of the Knights of the Round Table -- crumbles and is destroyed, undermined by internal jealousies and the adulterous love of Queen Guinevere and Lancelot. The only relics: a circle of ropes held up by swords, a pathetic (low) round table, the silhouette of a castle tower at the top of a green hill (a subtle Wagnerian allusion?). Nothing in any case that takes into account the musical magic of Chausson, the great symphonist, whose abundant, refined, sensual orchestration clothes a harmonic language of fluid and elegant complexity, reinforced by the almost syllabic prosody of the accompanied recitative.