A King Arthur Rarity Is an Apt Way to Return to the Opera

In the third act of Ernest Chausson’s opera “Le Roi Arthus” (“King Arthur”), Guinevere asks Lancelot, “United in love, united in sin, will we also be joined in death?”

The tangled Arthurian love triangle is familiar from “The Once and Future King,” “Camelot” and the works of Sir Thomas Malory. But here the question, set to longing sighs in the orchestra, immediately evokes another complicated 19th-century operatic romance: Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.”

Chausson’s only opera, which is being given a rare staging at the Bard SummerScape festival starting on Sunday, never fully escapes the shadow of “Tristan.”

But in “Le Roi Arthus,” he also managed to find his own path. A contemporary of Henri Duparc and Gabriel Fauré, Chausson (1855-99) is today best known for his “Poème” for violin and orchestra. Born to wealth, he composed slowly and carefully. “Arthus,” which he wrote over the course of almost a decade in the 1880s and ’90s, didn’t premiere until 1903, years after he died in a cycling accident. By the turn of the 20th century, the work already seemed dated, and it has only occasionally been performed since.

“It’s unbelievably beautiful,” Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College and the production’s conductor, said in an interview. “And not only beautiful, but grammatically very smartly put together.”

Like many composers of his time, Chausson labored under the anxious influence — what he called the “ardent and despotic inspiration” — of Wagner. “If you’re going to be influenced by someone, Wagner is as good as you can get,” Botstein said. “But it is terribly obvious that it’s not by Wagner; there is very French chromaticism and a French melodic sensibility.”

Chausson was well aware of the threat of merely rewriting “Tristan.” His friend Claude Debussy wrote to him in 1893 with concerns that part of Debussy’s own opera then in progress, “Pelléas et Mélisande,” “resembled the duet of Mr. So-and-So” — meaning Wagner. Later, after reviewing a draft of “Le Roi Arthus,” Debussy wrote to Chausson, “We would gain, it seems to me, by taking the opposite course.”

Chausson’s score does occasionally sound like Wagner, notably in a brief, portentous appearance by Merlin. But he also made conscious decisions to distance himself from the master: He tends to avoid characteristically Wagnerian dense orchestration and that composer’s shifting thickets of leitmotifs — bits of music representing characters or concepts.

As was Wagner’s practice, Chausson wrote his own libretto, and repeatedly edited it — especially after his colleague Duparc sent him a 51-page critique singling out the opera’s similarities to “Tristan.” By its final form, unlike in Wagner’s opera, Lancelot and Guinevere’s illicit affair is already in progress at the start of the opera, and they are fully in command of their own fates — not, as in “Tristan,” under the spell of a love potion. And Lancelot, crucially, experiences a crisis of conscience unlike any faced by Wagner’s hero.

Chausson makes his mythic figures into fallible, conflicted humans. Arthur (at Bard, the baritone Norman Garrett) struggles with the loss of his marriage and of his most trusted confidant. The extended duets for Lancelot (the tenor Matthew White) and Guinevere (the mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke) explore earthly questions of trust, loyalty and love — far from Wagner’s weightily philosophical, Schopenhauerian mists.

Louisa Proske, the production’s director, sees this as one of the opera’s strengths. “This love is organic, it’s genuine, and it’s human,” she said in an interview. “And it’s very modern, in the sense that Chausson is really interested in the impasse between the two lovers and how the arguments on each side keep playing out.”

Writing about “Le Roi Arthus,” the musicologist Steven Huebner has pointed out that Guinevere can be seen as a typical fin-de-siècle operatic seductress, her chromaticism aligned with Carmen before her and Salome after — “driven by sensuality, a threat to virility.”

But Proske disagrees. “She’s not a femme fatale who splits up the good work of the men,” she said. “She is a woman who is fighting for a love that she deeply believes is sublime, and the highest good in this world. There’s so much substance in what she says and expresses musically.”

Proske’s staging mixes images from different cultures, both ancient and modern. She said that the abstract set and timeless costumes — including new heraldry for Arthur’s knights — “create a tension between the past and the future.”

“They’re not historically accurate,” she added of the designs. “They express an imaginary idea of Europe. I really love that it’s, at the same time, an action movie as it has knights and kings and queens. It has this kind of grand, epic scale that is really fun to put onstage. And at the same time, it’s deeply an opera of ideas.”

The work depicts Arthur’s Round Table at its twilight. “The Round Table,” Proske said, “which Arthur devotes his life to, stands for or embodies an idea of good governance and good kingship, which is not quite the same as democracy.”

The political context will come to the fore in Bard’s presentation of what is perhaps the opera’s most distinctive sequence: its ending, in which a boat arrives to carry Arthur away. Five offstage sopranos and what the score describes as an “invisible chorus” call to him to “come with us beyond the stars” for a “deep, endless sleep.” (Morgan Le Fay and Avalon go unmentioned.) This all comes after two protracted death scenes for Lancelot and Guinevere, who strangles herself with her own hair.

The Bard production will bring that invisible chorus onstage. “Arthur and the heroic, charismatic autocratic nobility essentially disintegrate and recede into the heavens,” Botstein said. “The people come onstage. They represent the future. There’s a symbolic vision of the possibilities of democracy.”

Proske also sees the ending as an image of recurrence: “It’s the situation of a political leader at the end of his life. It is a complete failure because the project has failed. The gift that the chorus brings to Arthur is to say that it hasn’t failed, because in the future, it will recur, your thought will live on and take shape in different periods of history, and people will pick up what you left us.”

Such a fragile promise of renewal and rebirth is perhaps an apt way to return to the opera house after the coronavirus pandemic. “I think this is a really exciting piece to come back with, because at heart, it actually thinks about the necessity of collective storytelling,” Proske said. “I hope that the audience will feel part of that collective at the end and will take home something that will stay with them.”

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