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Recordings

Ernest Chausson: Le Roi Arthus
19 Jul 2006

CHAUSSON: Le Roi Arthus

I belong to the happy few (some would say ‘unhappy’ few) who ever witnessed a stage production of this rarely performed opera.

Ernest Chausson: Le Roi Arthus

Andrew Schroeder (Arthus), Susan Bullock (Genièvre), Simon O’Neill (Lancelot), François 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.

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The work premièred at De Munt in Brussels in 1903 as no house in Paris wanted to perform it. A few years ago De Munt commemorated the première with a new production, a courtesy that was not given in 1984 to Massenet whose Hérodiade too had its première 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 François 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 Genièvre 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

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