CHAUSSON: Le Roi Arthus

The work
premiËred at De Munt in Brussels in 1903 as no house in Paris wanted to
perform it. A few years ago De Munt commemorated the premiËre with a new
production, a courtesy that was not given in 1984 to Massenet whose
HÈrodiade too had its premiËre in Brussels. But Ernest Chausson is
Art while with Massenet there is the lurking fear the public would actually
enjoy the opera. I cannot say the experience was unforgettable but neither
would I go as far as a colleague who defined Le Roi Arthus cynically
as “Tristan und Isolde without the many hilarious jokes Wagner
put in it”. Nor would I call it “sprawling, directionless”
“singers drowning in orchestral waves” as The Gramophone
does in its review.

In fact, and contrary to custom, I liked the recording better than the
live performance, though the reasons have nothing to do with the quality of
the performers. When playing the recording, one doesn’t have to digest
the whole opera at once (this recording lasts 2 hours 47 minutes). One can
replay a particularly fine part (the song of the labourer at the start of act
2) and one can even skip some of the indeed very loud and overlong scenes
like the first scene of the first act that seems to last an eternity (in
reality only 17 minutes). Chausson is not a very good tune smith: he never
gets atonal but his melodies seem too laboured and, indeed, owe a lot in the
duets of Lancelot-Guinevere to the master of Bayreuth. The composer worked
for 7 years on and off to his score and it shows. Some parts like the prelude
to act 1 and the impressive final scene are more in the mood of
Chausson’s teacher, Jules Massenet, reminding us of the best parts of
Le Cid. To me they seem far better suited to the story of Camelot
than the many Wagnerian longueurs elsewhere.

The conductor, Leon Botstein, explains in a small essay why he loves the
piece as he does. It is probably too much to ask of a conductor to restrain
his orchestra a bit if the score allows him to wallow in big gorgeous sounds;
but I wish Mr. Botstein would have restrained his forces a bit during the
concertato of the first act. In the rest of the opera he is certainly
admirable, not lingering in the duets and keeping an eye on the balance
between orchestra and singers, which are definitely not drowned. As could be
expected, he is handicapped by his performers. A young Alagna and a young
Fleming would have been ideal but notwithstanding the generous contribution
by a maecenas it is nowadays almost impossible to hire the few available top
singers for a BBC-broadcast or even a recording, as the chances for further
performances are almost non-existent and the rewards for studying far less
difficult roles so much greater. Only baritone FranÁois Le Roux is ideal with
his mellow voice as Merlin. Baritone Andrew Schroeder has the advantage of
experience as he sang the title role in the Brussels performance but it is a
serviceable sound of good size; English National Opera quality but nothing of
beauty that would lead him to a major career. Even less beauty is to be found
with Simon O’Neill. The voice is tight and not very appealing; and
though he sings ardently one hears his is not the big lyric the role
requires. In the many love duets, there is not much charm or sweetness that
would explain the queen’s infatuation. Susan Bullock as GeniËvre is a
well-known English Wagnerian soprano in the Jane Eaglen-mould; that means
quite a lot of volume, not too rich or unforgettable a timbre and definitely
shrill in the upper register. All the main performers sing a very
understandable French. In Brussels the only sinner against pronunciation was
the one native French speaker. All small roles are excellently done with
special praise for Arthur Kennedy as the ploughman.

Jan Neckers

image_description=Ernest Chausson: Le Roi Arthus
product_title=Ernest Chausson: Le Roi Arthus
product_by=Andrew Schroeder (Arthus), Susan Bullock (GeniËvre), Simon O’Neill (Lancelot), FranÁois Le Roux (Merlin), Daniel Okulitch (Mordred), Garret Sorenson (Lyonnel), Donald McIntyre (Allan), Andrew Kennedy (Un Laboureur), Michael Bundy (Un Chevalier), Colin Campbell (Un Ecuyer), Apollo Voices and BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein.
product_id=Telarc 80645 [3CDs]