Given France’s bewildering prejudice against so many of its composers, attempts to revive overlooked works need to bid high to win over the sceptics. Ernest Chausson’s only opera, a heady mix of sensual French colour and brooding Wagnerian sentiment based on the Arthurian legend, had to travel to Brussels for its (posthumous) first performance in 1903. Sadly, this long overdue first showing at the Paris Opera makes a substantial case for keeping it off the stage and in the concert hall.
Musically, it is a triumph. Almost 30 years after his father conducted the recording that rescued the work from oblivion, Philippe Jordan draws superb playing from the orchestra, stressing transparent textures to offset the score’s obvious debt to Tristan, Parsifal and other Wagnerian dramas. In Jordan’s hands, the score no longer sounds like a sequence of fawning cribs but a successful fusion of complementary styles.
A star cast spends the first act nervously adjusting before turning on the magic. Thomas Hampson’s Arthur is emotionally charged even if the part now lies high for him. Sophie Koch rules her space as the self-centred Guinevere and Roberto Alagna’s strong, crisply enunciated Lancelot is arguably his best performance in recent years. Even most of the supporting cast is outstanding, notably Stanislas de Barbeyrac’s impeccable Lyonnel and Cyrille Dubois as a labourer.
They are all let down by Graham Vick’s disloyal staging, which repackages the myth as a doomed contemporary battle between ideals and human frailty. His intentions, so appealing in the programme book, undermine the work’s mystic appeal, often transforming it into a banal suburban comedy. The audience titters when Guinevere is carried in on a hideous red settee and guffaws when she and Lancelot frolic on a neat patch of gazon fleuri like labradors at play. Paul Brown’s sets box in the singers, a good thing acoustically, but his DIY living room and picture postcard backdrop of Glastonbury Tor are a poor substitute for the Arthurian myth’s rich iconography, especially in the clinical glare of Adam Silverman’s eccentrically bright lighting.
After Vick’s memorable Parsifal and Peter Grimes here, expectations were high. This is a kick in the ribs for Chausson.
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