Ernest Chausson (1855–1899) completed only one opera, Le Roi Arthus, and it took him almost ten years to do so. It was not premiered until four years after his death, which occurred when he hit a brick wall while riding his bicycle. It took another 118 years for the work to receive its first fully staged American production, given as part of Bard SummerScape.

Norman Garrett (King Arthur), members of Bard Festival Chorale
© Maria Baranova

Like many of his contemporaries, he feared Wagner’s influence. "Always there's that awful Wagner who blocks my path at every turn," he said. "I feel like an ant that comes up against a huge, slippery boulder in its path."  And, in fact, he didn’t escape; his opera’s chromaticism and orchestration – the dark string writing, massed brass and bass clarinets, for example – show clear influences of Wagner, but the vocal lines have welcome lucidity. Even the plot, focusing on the part of the Arthurian legend involving the illicit affair between Guinevere and Lancelot and the King’s idealism and resignation in the face of such treason, is more than a bit reminiscent of Tristan und Isolde, except that here the emotional focus is on Arthur. There is a love duet for Lancelot and Guinevere that’s interrupted by a warning from Lancelot’s Squire, à la Brangäne, that danger is approaching; the “Tristan chord” appears more than once. All that’s missing are leitmotifs to complete the Wagnerian homage, and there are arguably a couple "signature tunes" as well. Careful listening will bring others to mind, as in the first scene’s almost exact quote from Esclarmonde (Chausson studied under Massenet), and the second act love duet ends with a direct quote from the Immolation Scene.

Sasha Cooke (Genièvre) and Matthew White (Lancelot)
© Maria Baranova

The work has its longueurs and the libretto, by Chausson himself, can be repetitive – the love duet for the passionate, selfish Guinevere and loving, guilt-laden Lancelot in Act 2 seems as if they are nagging one another (He: "I must confess to betraying my King"; She: "I'm scared, just lie", over and over again) – but there are lush orchestral spells galore, excitement when Mordred catches the lovers and Lancelot thinks, incorrectly, that he has killed the jealous Mordred. The glorious third act finds the bereft Arthur seeking out Merlin, who like Erda to Wotan in Act 3 of Wagner's Siegfried offers gloomy news. The opera culminates with an angelic chorus transporting the idealistic Arthur to heaven, assured that his life's work has not been in vain despite the fact that his favorite knight betrayed him in love and battle, and that his wife strangled herself with her own hair to avoid living without Lancelot.

Sasha Cooke (Genièvre)
© Maria Baranova

Though not lavish, the sets, by Matt Saunders, are useful and close to literal – a Round Table, indeed; heraldic flags; trees in a forest; followed, after the battle in Act 3, by shards of the tables and chairs to represent loss and destruction. It's a make-believe Camelot with the royalty garbed as the ten-pointers in a deck of cards. The Round Table personifies optimism and fair leadership. Louisa Proske's direction is the soul of fine storytelling, with little extraneous behavior to distract from the central love story and nobility of feeling.

The singing and commitment were remarkable. Norman Garrett, grand of stature in his red and gold robes, offered a fierce leader and loving friend, with a voice that proved well focused and expressive. Matthew White, long blond hair flowing and dashing in white, blue and silver, used his remarkably focused tenor with assurance, even when the orchestra seemed to want to overwhelm him and when the vocal line's heroics might have menaced a less youthful sound. I'm not certain why Guinevere is assigned to a mezzo, as the tessitura tends to be high. But Sasha Cooke sang the role with clear diction and unbridled ardor and turned her self-strangulation scene into a tragic moment.

Justin Austin (Mordred), members of Bard Festival Chorale
© Maria Baranova

With far less to do, baritone Justin Austin painted a vivid portrait of the conniving Mordred. Impressive lyric tenor Andrew Bidlack was Lancelot's faithful servant, Lyonnel, and Troy Cook's dark baritone suited Merlin's grave pronouncements ideally.

Conductor Leon Botstein, music director of the American Symphony Orchestra and president of Bard College, has recorded and led this opera before, in 2001 and 2005. Occasionally aggressively loud but mostly simply beautiful, Chausson's at times dreamy, plush, echt Romantic score was stunningly played by the Orchestra, and James Bagwell's Bard Festival Chorale was superb as usual.

One felt for the poor composer, whose grand and only opera fell prey to a whole new style in French music when he wasn't looking – by the time Le Roi Arthus was premiered, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande had taken the world by storm, and Chausson seemed somewhat antique. Debussy and Chausson were frequently in contact and Debussy offered Chausson advice about Le Roi Arthus. But advice can go only so far; Chausson's compositional voice was too strong.


****1