Ernest Chausson: Le roi Arthus (1903)

Opera en trois actes. Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes.

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This review is of the 1986 studio recording from Erato which is apparently twenty minutes long than other recordings. The 1996 recording trims the interludes down, although oddly some of the vocal sequences (such as the Merlin scene) are actually slightly longer in the 1996 recording.

SETTING: Early Medieval Britain. This is basically the Wagner opera Wagner never wrote: the adulterous relationship of Queen Guinevere (mezzo-soprano) and Sir Lancelot (tenor) is discovered by Mordred (bass), nephew of King Arthur (baritone) leading to the deaths of the lovers and the apotheosis of the King. This happy ending for Arthur is why I’m reviewing it now.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (43 minutes)

Scene 1: A great hall in Arthur’s palace.

0: The brief prelude ** is a furiously warlike piece that is closer to Massenet’s Esclarmonde than late-Wagner, although it does contain traces of Tannhauser. 

3, 16: Glorie a vous qui m’avez sauve Arthur praises the knights of the round table (particularly Lancelot) in a long series of arioso and choruses ** the best of which occurring in the first five minutes. The chorus of knights triumphs to a return of musical ideas from the prelude as well as an explosive one when they depart. We establish that Mordred is jealous of Lancelot’s success on the battlefield (he also wants Guinevere although he doesn’t know about her relationship with Lancelot yet) and will find anything to destroy him. Guinevere comes on for one of the most boring arioso passages in an address to Lancelot. Arthur leaves and furious military music returns as we go into a scenery changing interlude, this time with some quotations from Tristan und Isolde *, notice the male chorus at the end.

Scene 2: The Palace Gardens, Night.

22: Seul, le cri de veilleurs After the distant male voices, Lancelot’s squire Lyonnel starts a look out that is similar to Brangane’s *.

27: Delicieux oubli des choses de la terre The Lancelot-Guinevere adulterous love duet ** starts off chromatically with some very obvious quotations from the Liebesnacht and several other parts of the score of Tristan und Isolde. It is lovely and sedate, calm and undemanding, eventually having a mild climax. In the last two minutes a harp pops in for a good effect.

36: Le jour, maitre! le jour! Lyonnel gives his warning that the dawn has come but the lovers remain together as the distant male voices come in again and Mordred discovers the lovers in a most sedate encounter (more Tristan) in which Lancelot crosses swords with Mordred and flees after wounding him, Guinevere stays behind (although she tells Lancelot that she will have to run away with him if Mordred lives and reveals the truth of their affair to Arthur) and rather half-heartedly says “Mort”/”He is dead” although he actually isn’t. In the last two minutes the temperature does rise, but it is after the action has taken place and we are in a postlude *.

ACT 2: (59 minutes)

Scene 1: Lancelot’s castle.

0: An okay prelude *, very romantic. It gets broken up by the song of an a cappella tenor labourer (an obvious steal from the opening of Tristan).

6: Lyonnel, a-t-il pu la voir? Lancelot comes on * freaking out about Mordred (who he thinks dead) and what this might do to his relationship with Arthur (a cappella labourer returns in the distance).

12, 27, 34: Mordred est vivant! The heart of the scene is a twenty-two minute long duet for Lancelot and Guinevere, who has fled with Lancelot to his castle. She tells him Mordred is alive and has revealed their affair to Arthur. Their reactions are polar opposite: while Lancelot is guilty about violating his honour and his king Guinevere’s only concern is that her reputation will be ruined by Mordred’s revelation of her adulterous affair with Lancelot. The first two-thirds of the duet are musically very boring but it does have moments of refined beauty which salvage it * (specifically from the orchestra). The last-third at least has more of a pulse ** but also includes a lot of quotations from the second act of Tristan und Isolde as well as something resembling the Dresden Amen. The interlude * is a bit more energetic at first (with quotations from The Ring?).

Scene 2: A secret chamber in Arthur’s palace.

39: Lancelot n’a pas encore paru? This scene is a self contained 20 minute sequence starting with a conversation between Arthur and his knights which resembles both Tristan and Parsifal in its mournful tone (** for the way the musical is able to get us to empathize with Arthur). Arthur just doesn’t believe that Lancelot and Guinevere have betrayed him. Meanwhile the Saxons are attacking and Arthur goes on morosely for a while which gets boring.

46: Merlin, entends ma voix! Suddenly, Arthur summons Merlin and we enter easily the best passage in the opera so far as Merlin conjures up a prophetic and sobering vision of Arthur’s future ***. Merlin declares that Arthur’s reign is coming to an end, but he will not answer when asked if Guinevere has committed adultery with Lancelot.

56: Meanwhile, the Knights have discovered that Guinevere has fled the palace and Arthur declares all out war on Lancelot **. An energetic finish to the act.

ACT 3: (63 minutes)

Scene 1: The summit of a mountain near Arthur’s camp in a pine forest.

0: The prelude starts dark, deep, and chromatic *, later turning toward the first act prelude and its military air.

2: De grace, arrêtez-vous, maitresse Guinevere comes on ** with her servant Allan who begs her to not run so quickly into her husband’s forces but Guinevere is apparently without fear.

8: Dieu! Guinevere! Lancelot arrives seriously wounded. Guinevere does not want him to go to Arthur but Lancelot demands that honour compels him to go to the King even if he dies as a result. She wants him to stay with her. Again, it is very Wagnerian (quotations from The Ring especially). Horns are heard from Arthur’s forces calling for the hunt of Lancelot. He goes declaring that he will certainly die and never see her again, more trumpet fanfare from afar and Guinevere orders Allan to leave her. There isn’t a specific highlight (as with most the lovers music) but the sequence as a whole gets **.

21: Ah! trahie! abandonné! Guinevere, knowing that Lancelot will soon die from his wounds, commits suicide by strangling herself with her own hair. This takes twelve minutes, but they are a surprisingly good twelve minutes ***. The only thing she wanted was for him to die in her arms, but she has been denied even that.

Scene 2: A rocky seashore.

34: Son corps est couvert de blessures Lancelot, still alive but dying, is brought to Arthur *.

37: Ils n’obeirent pas Lyonnel tries to talk to Lancelot, it is mostly futile apart from answering a few questions. Lancelot realizes that Arthur is near and asks him to pronounce judgement upon him. He forgives Lancelot as he dies, Lyonnel mourning his master and leaving with his corpse. Overall ** for the sequence.

50: Seigneur, Seigneur, je suis sans force entre vos mains Arthur’s prayer to the Almighty turns into an eerily etherial apotheosis rendered excellent by the choral work and a soprano soloist ***. It turns into a baritonal Liebestod (a rather novel idea) but this oddly enough shakes off the Wagnerian shackles for once and sounds distinctively French. Arthur is taken by a magical faerie boat to Avalon. Curtain.

COMMENTS:

I went into this review hoping to love this opera but to be honest although I like it, there is little here to love. Some of the music is good, a few moments even are great, but overall it is just so derivative of Wagner and lacks any originality, except the ending. The plot is very simple, basically one or two plot points occur in any given scene and the only filler is Merlin’s prophecy which is one of the three great moments in the score. This basically is a Wagnerian music drama in French, it might even possibly be the best example (heaven knows few of these French Wagnerite operas have seen the light of day in decades), but I also have to pinch myself to remember that this isn’t Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal, or part of The Ring Cycle. There are other weaknesses that are far more damning: the love duets are mostly inert and the duel between Lancelot and Mordred lacks any sense of drama which is bad because with all the fighting occurring off-stage, this is literally the only opportunity for on-stage action. However, to balance against this there are three amazing moments: Merlin’s prophecy, Guinevere’s suicide, and Arthur’s Apotheosis which are all stunning. Not bad for a one-off opera composer who never explored the genre again. B+, maybe scrapping an A-.

14 thoughts on “Ernest Chausson: Le roi Arthus (1903)

  1. This opera is on my list. My list of Things To Listen To, not the one of every sodding opera ever composed! The opening five minutes are wonderful. Pity it doesn’t live up to ’em, by your reckoning.

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    1. What you have the list of all 50,000+!

      I actually like the first ten minutes of this opera, then the last fifteen minutes of the second act, and almost all of the third act (which is the best of the three and also the longest). The only real problem is that the Lancelot-Guinevere romance does not seem to have inspired Chausson at all. Their first duet is basically a mild form of the Liebesnacht, but afterwards they just sort of exist and he doesn’t seem to know what to do with them, and the sound world around them is either dry (ACT 2) or takes on the characteristics that that which is around them (ACT 3, military sounds which are more effective). The other elements mostly work, especially Arthur and Merlin who are both rather well drawn. Guinevere’s suicide is great though. I would highly recommend listening to it if you’ve never heard it from beginning to end before.

      Yet again, all this is my opinion. The only operas we totally agree on positively are Les Huguenots, Le Prophete, Don Carlos, Verdi’s Otello, and Lohengrin! Negatively we do have The Ring and Tristan, and most of Saint-Saens, but we totally disagree on Gounod, Cilea, and probably Bellini (?) and Puccini, so don’t take my word for it, listen to it yourself! (Love to see your post!)

      I didn’t mention this in the post, because I thought you might comment on it, but apparently it isn’t as derivative of Wagner as I thought and is actually closer to the work of Cesar Franck.

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      1. Mozart?
        Fidelio?
        Rossini?
        Lucia, Elisir, Puritani (otherwise I like Donizetti more, and Bellini less than you do)
        Rigoletto and Aida?
        Berlioz?
        Massenet?
        Henry VIII?
        Strauss?

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      2. Oh, yeah…that’s right. I never said anything about Fidelio, but yes we do agree on the rest of this list, except maybe Elisir. I don’t hate it but I’m not in love with it either. Strauss, that gives me an idea about my next review!

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      3. As long as it isn’t Erkel’s Bank Ban, that thing infuriates me with its alternate act endings, rearrangement of the plot, and the fact that if it had a standard version it would actually be a great opera.

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      4. Wow about the Meyerbeer. Eh, about James Bond, I’m not a huge fan. I’m working on Bank Ban, want to go back to where I started with the blog, thus Erkel. It has been two years and I’ve only done the one opera out of eight.

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