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Saint Corentin, évêque de Quimper
21 Oct 2008

Le Roi d’Ys at Avery Fisher Hall

By the time he completed Le Roi d’Ys, in 1888, Edouard Lalo was sixty-five, approaching the end of a successful career as a chamber violinist.

Edouard Lalo: Le Roi d’Ys

American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, on the Great

Above: Saint Corentin, évêque de Quimper


Like Massenet, Fauré, 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 Klang were far more persuasive. May one request Spohr’s Jessonda, Chabrier’s Briséis 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 Frédéric 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

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