Opera en trois actes. Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes.
This is probably the only French imitation of Wagner from the 19th century that is actually rather strikingly good. Rumaging through such works as Gwendoline, Le roi Arthus, Fervaal, there really isn’t much to compliment, but here there actually was a successful inning. This may be because Lalo wrote the opera for his wife, the celebrated French contralto Julie de Maligny, who was of Breton origin.
PLOT: The legendary coastal kingdom of Ys, Brittany, France, Middle Ages. A contralto princess, Margared, is in love with a tenor warrior Mylio who is in turn in love with her soprano sister Rozenn so she teams up with a jilted baritone suitor Karnac to flood her bass king father’s city. Plus a Breton saint gets really mad at her. Enjoy!
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A terrace of the palace of the King of Ys. (43 minutes)
0: The overture *** is probably the best number in the opera, but even if so early it is a knock out. It is decidedly an imitation of Wagner, but how much it is an imitation is anyone’s guess because apart from the heavy brass usage it seems more like Massenet’s Esclarmonde than Gotterdammerung. After some brief brooding low strings and aimless woodwinds switching back and forth there is a nice clarinet tune until finally there is one furious fanfare which will return at the end. After about three minutes of this we get some quiet and then a lovely if brief cello concertino. There is a return of the fanfare followed yet another collapse and then the ultimate military tune which then basks in the most amazing glow. It is irresistable, and probably the most non-Wagnerian and yet modern-sounding conclusion you will ever hear. Also it is disproportional to the rest of the opera, being 12 minutes in length and throughout it has a strangely classical feel to it.
12: The introduction consists of three choral numbers ** the first starting with shouts of <<Noel!>>. Everyone is happy that peace has finally arrived as they wave flags and Jahel, the King’s herald announces that Margared is about to be wedded to Karnac, the city’s great enemy warlord, as part of the peace. The second is to an apparent Breton melody for the women with interjections from the men. There is a third chorus, another Breton wedding melody, this one furious but still joyous as everyone makes ready for the wedding, but it fades away without fully developing although it will return later. Personally, the first and third stick in your head much more than the second, but all three are good.
20: Rozenn and Margared embark on the most ornery session of sister chat until finally a lovely melody floats up from the orchestra and is taken up by Rozenn’s vocal line **. This forwards the romantic situation which will govern everything that happens later, namely that Rozenn is in love with Mylio and Margared is in love with a man who was on the ship Mylio sailed on when he left years ago (re: they are both in love in Mylio).
26: A chorus of maidens arrives * to take Margared off to her wedding preparations. This leaves Rozenn to emote in what feels like a long arioso.
30: Suddenly Mylio arrives ** to rescue her and us from this brief lull in the music. There is a trumpet fanfare and Mylio promises to see Rozenn again soon and goes.
33: More trumpet fanfare and then a more developed version of the third chorus (the wedding melody) coming from the orchestra **. Karnac announces himself and the King greets him as his son. He prepares Margared and Karnac for their vows.
36: The people swear loyalty to Karnac to a descending scale * which makes one wonder how honest they are, but it is tuneful. More fanfare and then the wedding theme pops up for a third jolly go before stopping dead in its tracks as Margared realizes that Mylio has returned and she jilts Karnac at the altar to the terror of everyone.
40: The first finale *. The people are in horror, Karnac swears revenge, the King is enraged by Margared’s actions although Rozenn begs for mercy. Mylio arrives and challenges Karnac declaring that he can defeat him in battle. Lalo pulls every possible orchestral climax trick to end this thing.
Scene 1: A great hall in the palace. (30 minutes)
5: The act begins with what is essentially a condensed version of the first part of the overture. Ys is at war, military drum rolls and foreboding string and woodwind workings for a while. Margared comes on and is worried about who might win. Karnac would kill Mylio and marry her by force but if the latter is victorious he would probably marry Rozenn because she has figured out who loves who and whatnot. Her aria has a false start and takes about two minutes from that point to truly flower but when it does it is rather rich and tuneful if brief *.
8: The King arrives and Mylio is brought on oddly limpidly but as his thoughts turn to Rozenn there are several things in the orchestra that are worth looking out for including a self-plagiarized return of the menacing military tune from the overture playing under Mylio’s energetic tenor line *.
10: A quartet ** for Rozenn, Margared, Mylio, and the King, at first lite but quickly turning menacing military again. The King gives his permission for Mylio to marry Rozenn should he be victorious against Karnac.
16: Jealous Margared confronts Rozenn amid the most ornery orchestral bursts in what appears to be violent recitative. (Why does Lalo appear to not want to give structure to these sisterly encounters?). Rozenn ends up with yet another patch of sweet arioso * but Margared curses her and the situation gets so dire that Rozenn ends up screaming.
Scene 2: A field, a small chapel to St. Corentin on right.
27: More menacing military tune, this time with a surprising series of choral and Mylio/tenor interjections. After some more menace we get an oddly sunny patch from the orchestra before more doom music and the arrival of Karnac which apparently involves him despairing about his defeat and calling upon the forces of Hell which brings on Margared and more ornery brass orchestral bursts as she explains the whole situation with the city’s irrigation system and how she has the key which would unlock the heavy doors that keep the ocean at bay so they can flood the city, thus destroying it. Karnac is all for this as he wants to destroy Ys in the most effective way possible now. Suddenly a statue of St. Corentin, local Breton saint, comes to life and warns Margared to repent of her wickedly treasonous plan to destroy the city and kill its inhabitants, as said are heard singing over organ music **. The scene ends with yet another orchestral moment of all the stops.
ACT 3: (34 minutes)
Scene 1: A gallery in the castle, to the right the wedding chapel prepared for Rozenn and Mylio, to the left the door to her bedchamber.
0: Jahel makes his usual wedding announcements followed by a rather skippy wedding chorus *. Refreshingly jovial if not particularly amazing.
4: Mylio’s Aubade ***, the opera’s other great moment and apparently a recital favourite. Not as high temperature as the overture but sweet and romantic with its staccato strings. The wedding bells and organ are heard.
7: The march to the altar (part two?) ** as Rozenn delights Mylio and us with a sweet bit of soprano coloratura. Pavane-like music precedes a choral Te Deum and the arrival of Margared and Karnac who brood about at each other for several minutes as the wedding of their rivals takes place.
13: Karnac vents his desire to lay waste to everything and take Margared as his bride **. They go off finally to unlock the dykes.
15: The wedding cortege returns with nothing but loverly music for the chorus (briefly) and the happy couple (quite a few wonderful minutes) ***. In its own way it is so distractingly lovely.
21: The King returns really worried, Rozenn is too and they embark on a brief father-daughter duet *. The King noticed that Margared was not at the wedding and is worried as she calls out for him in the distance.
24: Scary stormy music wells up from the orchestra as Margared returns and tells everyone that the ocean water is flooding the city, Mylio describes the circumstances amid orchestral and choral terror **.
Scene 2: A plateau above the city where the survivors of the flood have sought refuge. A cliff above this.
26: The eight minute finale ***. An orchestral interlude leads to frightened choristers praying to the Almighty to save them. The King bemoans the destruction of his city, Mylio says that boats will not save them as the waters rise even further. Margared declares that in order to stop the flood she much sacrifice herself by throwing herself Senta-style into the ocean because she is the guilty one who released the floodwaters upon the city. Lalo depicts the suicidal ascent very well. She jumps, the people scream in terror. St. Corentin saves the city via divine intervention and then Mylio leads everyone in a brief exclamatory prayer (finishing with a very grand sustained high C). The orchestra mellows out the finish.
For an opera long considered unstageable Le roi d’Ys is able to pack a mighty punch. Admittedly the flood sequence, if it were to be done realistically, is the stuff of Cecil B. DeMille epics and it is unlikely that any theatre could pull it off any better than the overflowing of the Rhein in Gotterdammerung. Although the starring role is obviously the mezzo-contralto Margared the work is obviously an ensemble piece from start to finish. The plot does go from one self-induced crisis to another in rapid succession, first there is peace and a wedding planned then there is war, a treasonous plot which is overheard by a saint with a dire warning for the protagonist, a flood, and the suicide of the main character. The motivation (Margared’s jealousy of her sister over Mylio’s love) is standard for opera but still a bit bizarre. Why is she so willing to kill everyone in the city when she could just kill her sister or have Karnac do it? Two weddings in one opera, even if one doesn’t go through as planned, is still one wedding too many but both are necessary to the story. The score is a mixture of the banal and the remarkable. The overture and three long passages in the finale act are absolutely stunning and there are good long sustained moments in all three acts but there are also several passages (particularly when Margared and Rozenn are speaking to each other) where the orchestra turns into a noise machine rather than an accompaniment to the action. This is not just ornery, at times it borders on the brutally violent. This probably does match the sentiment Lalo was going for (that Margared really has no love for Rozenn even if her sister does care about her), but it is so jarringly different from everything else around it as to be uniquely shocking although the second scene of act two is another example of this. The opera is also very compact, one tenth of its total running time consisting just of the overture. I am not sure if this gives enough time for the characters to be truly fleshed out and it does give a rushed feeling to the opera. Lalo also seems to have a bizarre inability to end his acts effectively. The overture ends brilliantly but each of the acts ends with a series of stock opera orchestral gesturing giving the momentary impression that he doesn’t know what he is doing. The rest consists of sustained passages of very good music even if much of it is very obviously directly quoted from the overture (around a third of the second act consists of barely reworked music). An A- certainly, just not quite up to the level of the solid grade.