Le Roi d’Ys at Avery Fisher Hall

Like Massenet, FaurÈ, Reyer and Debussy, he had been dazzled by
the achievement of Richard Wagner, and like them he was anxious to find a way
to create an opera that would not owe too much to Wagnerian technique;
imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is not the best way
to create stage works with lives of their own. Too, in a France still
smarting from the Franco-Prussian War, it did not do for anyone hoping to
succeed to be too German.

So he took a folk tale about a magical city that sank beneath the waves
off the Breton coast, a city supposedly so marvelous (says my old Guide
Michelin) that another city named itself “like Ys,”
Par-Ys. In the opera, Ys is saved at the last minute, thanks to the
intervention of St. Corentin and the pagan self-sacrifice of wicked but
repentant Princess Margared, who opened the floodgates in the first place; in
the legend, the city was lost, but its bells can be heard in the surf and it
will rise again should mass ever be celebrated in the cathedral. (Try
chanting and sipping wine while under water. Go ahead, try.) Debussy made
that story a tone poem, La Cathedrale Engloutie, but Lalo, after the
grand stage spectacle of a city being engulfed, saved it again.
(Reminiscences of Der Fliegende Hollander are perceptible in the
story and audible in the score.)

If Brittany were a nation (and the inhabitants will assure you that it
is), Le Roi d’Ys would be its national opera – if it
were in Breton and not in French. The characters are cardboard – the
only one with any personality is Margared, a powerhouse mezzo (Dolora Zajick
would have fun with it), mixing Ortrud with Senta. The orchestral textures
(in which the chorus takes enthusiastic part) give the piece its not
inconsiderable charm – the scene-painting of Breton occasions (a
wedding, a storm, a flood) is masterful, but the only part of the work that
is well known or striking is the matinade, the tenor’s wedding
day aria from Act III, which turns up on many a recital disk and, in
performance, stands as the one knockout hit in the score.

Leon Botstein insists that the work is a second-rank masterpiece, like
Ariane et Barbe-Bleu and Le Roi Arthus – of which his
performances, in my opinion, also failed to convince or excite. (His
presentations of The Wreckers, Genoveva and Die Ferne
were far more persuasive. May one request Spohr’s
Jessonda, Chabrier’s BrisÈis or Janacek’s
Excursions of Mr. Broucek for his next novelty?) Except for some
messy brass work, the presentation on October 3 –probably the first in
New York in thirty-odd years (it was last given here by Opera Orchestra of
New York, but some ad hoc company or other actually staged it at the Beacon
Theater in (my) living memory) – was propulsive and enjoyable work in
the many virtuoso parts of this intriguing score.

The singers were young and, for the most part, impressive and promising.
Dana Beth Miller, hitherto a soprano, has made the best of a transition to a
lower fach; her Margared, full of hysterical threats, remorseful
asides, and heroic repentance, strayed only once – at a moment of shock
when a saint’s statue came to life in her face – into the
extramusical; otherwise one appreciated her cool control of a sizable and
richly colored mezzo in a long, various and demanding part. She was ably
supported by FrÈdÈric Antoun, who gave a light, delectable account of
Mylio’s matinade that made one eager to hear him in the
Offenbach, Mozart and Bellini roles he’s been doing here and there, and
Georgia Jarman was charming, as Margared’s bland but happy sister.
Curtis Streetman ably held down the small title role and Andrew Nolen
introduced the story as a Breton sidekick, then intruded portentously as the
saintly statue come to life, both duties that became him well.

John Yohalem

image_description=Saint Corentin, ÈvÍque de Quimper
product_title=Edouard Lalo: Le Roi d’Ys
product_by=American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, on the Great
Performers Series at Avery Fisher Hall.
product_id=Above: Saint Corentin, ÈvÍque de Quimper