Swans Commentary » swans.com September 24, 2012  



The Man Who Would Not Be King
Chabrier's Le roi malgré lui at Bard -- Beyond España


by Isidor Saslav





(Swans - September 24, 2012)   "The Man Who Would Not Be King," to counterphrase Kipling. According to Emmanuel Chabrier's opera Le roi malgré lui, in 1573 Henry of Valois was commanded by his mother to accept the offered throne of the kingship of Poland. Henry hated the idea but he believed in doing what mother wanted, especially when that mother was Catherine de' Medici. Here is what Wikipedia tells us about Henri:

In his youth, he was considered the best of the sons of Catherine de' Medici and Henry II. Unlike his father and elder brothers, he had little interest in the traditional Valois pastimes of hunting and physical exercise. Although he was both fond of fencing and skilled in it, he preferred to indulge his tastes for the arts and reading. These predilections were attributed to his Italian mother.

But in the course of the opera's action, Henri in disguised impersonation joins a cabal whose intent is to kick him out and send him home and install an archduke of Austria in his place, a result Henri himself ardently desires. In real history Henri, after a short kingship in Poland, (1573-74) is summoned home (finally) to ascend the throne of France due to the death of his brother, the original heir to the French throne. And so Henri lived on as Henri III of France (1574-89). He suffered assassination in 1589, and heirless, became the last of the Valois kings. Henri III of Navarre succeeded him as the first Bourbon king, Henri IV. (And we all know what happened to them.) Here is how Wikipedia describes the opera:

Chabrier's opéra-comique Le roi malgré lui (1887) deals with the unhappy Polish episode, with Henri as the reluctant King of Poland. In Kraków, he conspires with Polish nobles to depose himself. His friend Nangis changes places with him, but in the end, the plot fails and the curtain falls on Henri being crowned.

But not before we hear some of Chabrier's (1841-94; he was an almost exact contemporary of Tchaikovsky) most beautiful and exciting music. Almost every living, breathing person on musical earth has heard and loved Chabrier's orchestral rhapsody España. But in Le roi malgré lui we hear a counterwork of a different nationality, perhaps even more exciting, the Fête Polonaise. In its original form the FP is the opening scene of the second act of this opera, a ballroom festival scene, sung to by a chorus and danced to, ballroom style, by a corps de ballet. In its purely orchestral version the latter two groups are omitted. It was in this form that I, as a young member of the violin section of the Detroit Symphony under its very French conductor, Paul Paray (1886-1979), once either recorded or simply performed this work some 50 years ago. Paray specialized, of course, in the French repertoire that he knew so well from the earlier days of his career, and Chabrier's music was represented liberally.

I was very taken with the FP and wondered what the rest of the opera must be like. It took me those 50 years of waiting but finally Leon Botstein, the world's master programmer, mounted Le roi malgré lui as part of the Bard College Summerscape Music Festival, a festival that stands in its own world class for musical excitement, scholarly erudition, and popular appeal. Chabrier was chosen because he represented that period in French musical history that centered around this year's chosen composer, Camille St. Saens (1835-1921). Every year for almost the last quarter century Botstein and his co-artistic directors Christopher Gibbs and Robert Martin have chosen one specific composer around which to build their annual festival. Last year it was Sibelius, and years before that have seen Prokofieff, Elgar, Wagner, Copland, Liszt, etc. as the foci of the festival's activities.

An unusual, rarely-staged opera usually rings up the curtain on two successive in-depth weekends devoted to concerts and lectures on the selected composer's life, times, influences, and contemporaries. In past seasons there have been performed fully-staged presentations of Blitztein's Regina, Schumann's Genoveva, Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, Shreker's Der Ferne Klang, Richard Strauss's Die Liebe der Danae, and this year was Chabrier's turn.

Goodness knows, this opera surely has needed revival. After a few performances of its original production in 1887 the whole opera house burned down! After some further early performances in Germany it had to wait until 1929, in Paris, for its next revival. Its most recent revival, also in Paris, was in 2009. The opera Chabrier presented just before Lrml, Gwendoline, in 1886, likewise suffers from non-revival as far as I know. I also recorded the overture to Gwendoline under Paray, and I've rarely heard such tensely exciting, rhapsodic, quasi-Wagnerian music as this. But in contrast to Lrml I'm still waiting to see a staged performance of Gwendoline. Perhaps Botstein and company can also put it onto their list sometime.

Besides the Bard operas, Botstein performs concert versions of unusual operas as part of his winter New York series of the American Symphony Orchestra of which he is the music director and conductor, and which orchestra accompanies the Bard operas. As part of this series, over the years audiences have heard Ethel Smythe's The Wreckers, Alberic Magnard's Berenice, Rimsky-Korsakoff's Mozart and Salieri, and Dargomizhsky's The Stone Guest in one program, as well as Die Liebe der Danae, staged at Bard last year. In addition, Botstein guest-conducted the New York City Opera in a revival of Paul Dukas's Ariane et barbe-bleu, and is the only conductor to have ever recorded Max Bruch's oratorio Odysseus, revived a symphony of Bruno Walter after 100 years, revived the 16-year-old George Szell's orchestral Variations on an Original Theme: this list simply goes on and on, which establishes Botstein as the world's most original musical programmer and archaeologist. Besides all that, Botstein remains unique as being simultaneously the president of a prestigious liberal arts college and the music director of an important professional symphony orchestra. As if all this weren't enough, Botstein's pre-concert lectures are sui generis and worth the trip just for themselves.

As a collaborator with the Summerscape Festival the American director Thaddeus Strassberger has created some remarkable operatic events. Previous to Lrml Strassberger in previous seasons has directed Les Huguenots and Der Ferne Klang, each striking in its own special way. Lrml, being a farcical comic opera, gave us Strassberger's talents in a new form. Usually I'm no fan of updates to operatic plots and resettings into modern times. But what Strassberger has created for Lrml is simply irresistible.

The characters are eclectically clothed and all represented on stage at the same time in stiff 18th-century Bourbon finery, modern dress suits, and Polish rustic outfits resembling Scottish kilts. The opening characters, representing unwilling French courtiers resident in Poland against their wills, shown playing at cards and having drinks, are simply unpacked en masse out of two large packing crates. This represents the artificiality of the whole situation. Much of the opera features arias contrasting the snowbound Polish way of life with the Parisian life of ease.

The simply rapture-inspiring second act with its Fête Polonaise is set as if the whole production were one big modern television show complete with wheeled cameras circulating to capture every shot, a red neon sign, "On Air," and the ingenious flashing neon sign that, at the end of every acrobatically virtuose aria, signals the audience that it's time for " Applause" (on-off-on-off...). Offstage, in a little cubicle room, one of the minor characters (who later constantly repeats, "I just follow orders but I don't understand a thing that's happening.") is shown watching the whole event in his little room on his own television set. He's much too unimportant to be invited to the actual event itself. When Henri and his former Venetian companion, the aristocratic Alexina, reminisce about their times in the gondola, an actual gondola complete with boatman appears on stage for their in-boat love making. My musical detective's ears heard a distinct resemblance to Offenbach's similar Barcarolle-like Venetian musical episodes from The Tales of Hoffman, staged for the first time but about eight years before Lrml's premiere.

Many of the arias and duets, especially those by the lower-class servant Minka and the aristocratic Alexina, are sensuous and exotic, while the beginning of the third and final act during which the coronation is to take place begins with morning infectious get-up-and-go music that reminds us of España. Despite all of Henri's machinations he finally accepts his coronation with choral accompaniment as "Le roi malgré lui."

All the singers were spectacular and in virtuoso form: Liam Bonner as Henri; Michele Angelini in the pants role of Nangis, Henri's best friend but incomprehending co-conspirator; Andriana Chuchman as the breathtakingly virtuose and sensuously appealing Minka, the servant girl in love with Nangis; Jason Ferrante as Basile, the offstage television watcher and go-boy; Frederic Goncalves, the knowing but sworn-to-silence bureaucrat Fritelli; Jeffrey Mattsey as Laski, the aristocrat sworn to remove Henri as king; and Nathalie Paulin as Alexina, Fritelli's wife but Henri's one-time Venetian amour. Leon Botstein conducted the ASO in the pit in his expected exciting and revelatory manner.

It was an afternoon never to be forgotten after a half-century's wait. Thank you, Bard College, Summerscape, and Leon Botstein.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published September 24, 2012