Leon Botstein

Chausson: Le Roi Arthus

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It was in the wake of Richard Wagner's passing that composers sought most ardently to create an answer to his Ring cycle with a property based on Arthurian legend. Perhaps the best of these efforts was Ernest Chausson's lone opera Le Roi Arthus, presented here by Telarc in a three-disc set featuring baritone Andrew Schroeder as the King, Susan Bullock as Lady Guinevere, and Simon O'Neill as Sir Lancelot, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein. Although this is the fourth recording of Le Roi Arthus, it is the first to be recorded in a studio situation, although it was recorded in connection with a BBC broadcast of the work.

One thing Le Roi Arthus definitely is, is BIG. Big singers, big climaxes in the orchestra, and an excellent chorus, the Apollo Voices, that is in your face from the first note assigned. The booklet runs to 75 pages, containing notes by Steve Huebner, acclaimed poet John Ashbery, and conductor Leon Botstein. All proclaim Le Roi Arthus as a masterpiece, albeit for different reasons; Huebner states that "Chausson found himself wedged between an overbearing voice of the past and the bold initiatives of (Debussy)." This is incorrect -- Wagner was not "a voice of the past" in 1895 when Le Roi Arthus was completed, but still very much of the present, even though dead 12 years. Unlike Debussy, Chausson felt that Wagner had built the best mousetrap in relation to mythic music drama and achieved success in Le Roi Arthus through creating a hybrid of his own style with that of Wagner. By mid-twentieth century standards, such venture by a nineteenth century French composer was an automatic qualification for well-deserved oblivion. That an opera such as Le Roi Arthus could go to four recordings is exemplary of the change in attitude that has occurred in the opera world even since Le Roi Arthus was first recorded in 1981.

This is an entirely satisfactory rendering of Le Roi Arthus, although in some cases the bigness of the voices gets a bit out of hand. One wants to say to some singers, "look, this is a studio recording; one need not play to the third tier." However, Chausson's work is successful not because it derives from Wagner or foreshadows any aspect of later practices, but because it is a solid stage work that is well paced, energetic, and loaded with variety, even as parts of it may sound like a version of Die Meistersinger as sung in French. This Telarc recording should satisfy all who wish to experience this no longer "rare" opera.

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