Bard Summerscape 2021 Review: Le Roi Arthus

Louisa Proske Delivers Revelatory Production Starring Fantastic Norman Garrett, Sasha Cooke & Matthew White

By David Salazar

Chausson’s “Le Roi Arthus” is a masterpiece.

The work, which the Frenchman, composed  between 1886 and 1895, had its premiere in 1903, and has rarely been heard from again. Critics of the work have noted its heavy debt to the likes of Richard Wagner and César Franck, and on some level, one might be inclined to conclude that these open influences strip the work of its own sense of identity. And it is a valid critique to be sure for Wagnerian references (particularly from the Ring and “Tristan und Isolde”), both musically and dramatically, resound throughout. And yet, listening to a live performance of the work, presented by Bard Summerscape (the first North American stage production of the opera ever!), none of that matters. The piece stands on its own. And it deserves to be allowed that opportunity more often.

Based on the Legend of King Arthur, Chausson centers it on the well-known betrayal of Lancelot with Arthur’s wife Guinevere. Of course, this love triangle plays into the central conceit of the opera’s dramatic arc, but Chausson doesn’t just focus on the melodramatic aspects of the conflict, instead exploring what the implications of that betrayal mean for Arthur and the world he hopes to create. His main goal is for the Round Table to provide unity among all his Knights and kingdoms. But Lancelot’s betrayal expresses the fact that that unity is an impossible ideal and the resulting strife ultimately destroys that society that Arthur has fought so hard for.

Also explored is Guinevere’s own position. As written by Chausson (and portrayed by Sasha Cooke), this is no mere damsel-in-distress, but a woman so unhappy with the life she has been forced into that she is ready to die for her freedom. Her character also forces Arthur to reckon with the limitations of his vision and its inability to see beyond the scope of his own ideals. That he refuses to believe Guinevere when she tells him that she and Lancelot are innocent (a lie, of course) and instead prefers to hear those same words from his knight, speaks to the patriarchal society that Guinevere feels so angered by. When Lancelot also opts to abandon her to try and reclaim his honor, she is once again forced to reckon with a world where believing in men is simply not a viable avenue for her. Men will be men. Her only choice is death and as portrayed by Chausson, it is a death of defiance.

Destroying the Round Table

Louisa Proske, who is one of the co-founders of the revolutionary Heartbeat Opera and is headed to Opera Halle, was the perfect person to bring all of these ideas together into mesmerizing theater.

The first major choice she made was to present the world of Arthur and his knights in traditional dress. That immediately immersed the viewer in the world. It’s a bold choice, especially in an opera world where going down this route seems less and less common, but given the opera’s rarity, it definitely allowed for an air of familiarity to the unknowing viewer (likely most of the audience).

From there, her set design was minimal but full of symbolism. A platform upstage was joined by two staircases at opposite ends with the famed Round Table taking up the center of the stage. It was mirrored by a circular opening in the “ceiling” and another circle behind that which would take on different identities throughout the night (the moon during the love scene, a magical circle during Merlin’s scene, and at the very end… stay tuned).

All of these elements, which featured rather conventionally in the opening scene, full of color and lavish costuming, would slowly reveal themselves to mean so much more as the drama unfolded.

Among the unique symbolic gestures and motifs utilized throughout is the idea of stripping down. These characters, all clad with armor and jewelry, are ultimately forced to reckon with the fact that their position in society is tentative and even empty. Guinevere throws away her rings, her royal apron, and unbraids her hair as she prepares for her death. Lancelot, shamed by his defiance and ultimately cowardice, throws aside his armor as he prepares for surrender (and a bloody death). Finally, Arthur, faced with a collapsing society and his own powerlessness, is beckoned by the beyond to renounce it all and transcend. In his final act, he throws it all aside – his armor, Excalibur, and, finally, his crown – for a different kind of power. Again, this all emphasizes that beyond the facade of chivalry and royalty, etc, we are all vulnerable humans headed toward the same destination – death.

But the most potent symbol of all is the Round Table and the circle motifs that appear throughout (as if the “Ring” references weren’t already pronounced enough). Its centrality on stage and throughout the set emphasizes its corresponding importance in Arthur’s mind. As such, it remains the one constant from scene to scene, dressed as Guinevere’s bedroom in the second scene and the forest in the Second Act. As a symbol of Arthur’s society, the choice to have the table as the set for these two locations, both deeply associated with Guinevere and Lancelot’s love, expressed the fact that they were always in Arthur’s orbit and would never be able to escape it.

In the second Act, the table is buried in dead leaves, which suggests the crumbling of Arthur’s world, an idea that would be furthered in Act three, when the table is literally shattered in pieces and thrown about the stage; with a civil war raging, the hope for unity, expressed by the table, is gone.

As the pieces of the table are removed from the set, the colors that so adorned that opening scene also fade away leaving the titular character alone on an empty, dark stage. As Merlin suggests in their tête-à-tête, the world they envisioned will be no more. There is no hope for the realization of his dreams.

Chausson however suggests a solution to this problem in his final scene – transcendence. Arthur is met by a chorus of cherubs, all dressed in white who beckon Arthur to find his ideal in the beyond. The two staircases at opposing sides of the stage (which symbolize this civil strife and separation) are joined into one at the center of the stage. That Circle hanging over the proceedings, lights up and descends to meet a stripped-down Arthur as he ascends the stairs. The lights dim down until he is but a silhouette merging into this circular beacon of light, his ideal vision of society waiting for him in the beyond. In the year and a half of lockdown, I’d forgotten the power that live theater can have on you. That final image, a glorious synthesis of everything that had come before, was the best reminder I could have hoped for.

Mired in Existential Dread

In the central role of King Arthur was Norman Garrett. And it is a monster. Arthur operates mainly on the fringes of the central conflict, which focuses rather strongly on the challenges the two lovers Lancelot and Guinevere face and the contrasts in their approach. Arthur spends a lot of time on stage alone, ruminating on his face, his arc more philosophical in nature. Garrett took on this titanic task with incredible poise and insight.

His towering presence was matching with a steely voice that seemed to flourish more and more as the night went on. Arthur’s opening line “Gloire,” set to a D natural above the stave, was power personified and set the stage for an opening monologue full with even more imposing high Es, Fs, and Gs, each line stronger and more confident than the last, as Arthur heaps praises on his victory and his men. This is most of what we get from Arthur in the opening scene and the only real opportunity to feel his might and power in a public setting.

When he returns, it’s in the second half of Act two and here we find him, weary, confused, and anything but powerful. If anything, he’s powerless, wondering about his failures and trying to reconcile the possibility that his best friend might have run off with his wife. As Arthur enters, he is met with a vision of Merlin holding him as a child. Whereas Garrett’s strides in the opening moments of the opera were full of energy, here his gait was full of hesitation; one might even surmise a limp of sorts. Coupled with his hunched posture, you got the sense this was a man crumbling before our eyes. This was furthered by his vocalization of the ensuing scenes, increasingly hushed and mellow. The forte outbursts, particularly on “Lancelot, voice, je t’appelle” were full of angst; there was an increased aggression in latter outbursts, particularly the final call to arms on a gloriously placed high G.

But I want to circle back to those quieter moments in the piece where Garrett immersed the listener in Arthur’s existential dread. This pained rumination in the second Act planted the seeds for his ultimate forgiveness of Lancelot in the final one and final acceptance, allowing the audience to feel the transition from power, to loss, to understanding, and finally, clarity and transcendence. Garrett’s embodiment of this final transition, his voice gaining in strengths, the darker color evolving into something more vibrant and pointed, dovetailed with his regal body language, perhaps more potent at the end than at any moment in that opening monologue.

While Garrett’s Arthur delivered on its more introspective nature, Matthew White’s revelatory turn as Lancelot was quite the opposite.

Two Wills at Battle & in Love

Lancelot is ultimately a man who puts his desires before his loyalty to his country and best friend and then when he realizes it’s too late, betrays the woman who has given everything up for him. And while Chausson, in many ways, makes him the “Tristan” of this tale, more than any other character, he is closer to Mordred (the Melot of this story) than he is to the virtuous Arthur.

Nonetheless, White managed a potent portrayal of Lancelot, playing up his heroic qualities with polished vocalism. The vocal writing calls for a higher tessitura that really calls on the tenor to have a solid squilo, which White undeniably has (you might even feel a Corelliesque quality as you listen to him) and confidently uses. His high notes are always secure and vibrant. The second Act duet with Guinevere calls for a number of high As and B flats, and a high C (C6) over a rising orchestra (Guinevere sings an E5); all of them were spotless.

One of White’s most revelatory moments came in the middle of this second duet where he seemingly concedes to Guinevere’s request that he lie to Arthur. He turns to her and makes his proclamation; Chausson writes the passage in the tenor’s lower range, which is arguably his softest and as such, least potent. White underscored this writing by providing a weighty vocal utterance, creating a sense of internal conflict; you could feel like by singing this lower phrase forcefully, he was trying to convince her and himself that this was what he wanted to do.

In the role of Guinevere was Sasha Cooke, whose voice was the definition of powerhouse. From her opening praise of Lancelot, through her two arguments with him (in Acts two and three), her voice boomed in the hall, giving rise to an interpretation of Guinevere as a woman in revolt of a system that’s oppressed her.

The lone moment where we didn’t feel this was during the Act two love duet. Here Chausson has the two singing in harmony, throughout, a beautiful vocal passage that expresses their unity and oneness, while also retaining a degree of individuality. Cooke’s voice meshed with Whites, every vocal gesture exquisitely unified. The same could be said for the climax of their Act two duet, with its crazed ascending lines that undeniably takes a few pages out of the book of “Tristan.” Whereas her singing in the first duet was more relaxed and serene, here it was full of desperate fire.

But Cooke’s most dynamic moments were those dramatic sections where she has to impose herself onto a wavering Lancelot. While Lancelot questions his motives and intentions, Guinevere holds firm that their love is paramount to anything else. Cooke stood her ground and her intense vocal power was wielded as a means of shutting down White’s own resistance. With the two at their most intense in their Act two and three scenes, the vocal firepower felt like an epic battle of wills, full of tension and inevitable heartbreak. 

And while the display of raw vocal power was undeniably electrifying, perhaps the most immersive moment in Cooke’s entire performance came right at the end, when with hushed tones, she prepared for death. She strips down, throwing away her jewelry, an apron, and unbraiding her hair, her voice hushed as she sang “Voici la fin du jour / La nuit tombe sur ma destine.” Each successive phrase seemed like a gradual diminuendo, the vibrato thin, creating a sharp contrast to the more vigorous outbursts of her previous moments. We got one final such moment as she proclaimed “Aidez-moi” to her unbraided hair and prepared to choke herself; these successive repetitions of “Aidez-moi” were crescendoed until all that was left were three disembodied “Ah,” Cooke falling to her death.”

Cooke, like Garrett and White, all proved impressive vocal powerhouses that must be on every major opera house around the world.

The role of Merlin is limited to one scene, but it is a hell of scene, comparable to the likes of Erda’s climactic appearance in “Das Rheingold” or the Grand Inquisitor’s dialogue with Filippo in “Don Carlo.” Merlin arrives to presage the end of the world essentially, doing little to qualm Arthur’s great fears. There’s so much turmoil and pain and fear in everything he utters, but Troy Cook, who took on the role, did not betray any of those emotions, instead providing a stoic and unyielding vocal performance as he stood rooted to the Round table, his image dwarfing that of Garrett’s unsteady Arthur. These choices allowed for a scene full of tension and dread, furthered by the chiaroscuro lighting effect that was employed.

Justin Austin provided a fantastic foil for both Arthur and Lancelot in the role of the scheming Mordred, his voice was full of venom and aggression every single time he was onstage.

This was contrasted by Andrew Bidlack and Wei Wu’s sweet and gentle Lyonnel and Allan, both aids to Lancelot and Guinevere, respectively. Andres Acosta also had a solid turn as a laborer singing in the woods, the two verses beautifully contrasting with the unsteady recitatives that precede Lancelot’s own solo moment.

A Man With a Vision

Leon Botstein is what a lot of artists should aspire to. A man with a vision who stays true to it. In doing so, he has rediscovered some golden nuggets of the operatic repertory. We constantly talk about the need to replenish the standard repertory by moving forward with modern opera or looking all the way back to its beginnings and reinstating baroque works. And while both approaches are valid (and Botstein has championed modern work quite a bit), he’s also allowed us an alternate path, which is to look into the heart of the standard repertory and see the other operas created around that time. “Dmitrij” and “Halka,” which we’ve reviewed here, were both revelations, and there’s no doubt that the same holds true for “Le Roi Arthus.” You feel the passion he has for this music as you sit and listen to it, with every ebb and flow building on itself. Having never experienced the opera before, I was immediately sucked in by it and never really released from its spell. The obvious touchstone moment has to be the finale of the opera, but before we go there, a lot must be said for the second Act, which might be the most incredible passage of the entire opera. With its gentle and melancholic prelude, to its stark contrasts between the laborer’s song and Lancelot’s conflicted monologuing, to the volcanic love duet (which rivals Wagner’s best in “Tristan”) to the more subdued rumination of Arthur, Botstein and his orchestra maintained a sense of drive and aural balance throughout.

But that ending was sublime. Props must be given to the Bard Festival Chorale, led by James Bagwell, which was a powerhouse the entire evening, but here managed something ethereal and gentle, guided along by the orchestra’s similarly sensitive playing. One felt Chausson’s music shifting its gaze in a different direction, away from Wagner in many instances, toward something different and unique.

And finally, a word on balance, which is something that remains elusive for a number of major opera conductors. Not so for Botstein who melded the orchestral playing with the soloists, creating, in this intimate space, a beautiful sense of chamber music-making between the stage and the pit.

Finally, I want to commend the Bard Summerscape for how they handled this event. I wouldn’t have come if not for the regulation that everyone must present proof of vaccination. At the very least it provided a viable means of returning to the opera house in a safe and constructive way. And from the looks of it, their handling of the experience was quite organized. While I don’t fully agree with the decision to not require mask-wearing during the performance, I was relieved to see that most people used it nonetheless.

And to conclude, I go back to my opening remark. This opera is a masterwork. Say what you will about how the work wears its influences on its sleeves, but there is no denying that those things put aside for a moment, “Le Roi Arthus” has a very potent identity of its own. And given its themes about loyalty, crumbling political institutions, women fighting for their freedom, it has a lot to offer for our world today. I’ve said this many times with a number of other operas, and as in those instances, I fully believe it here – this needs to be performed more often. The standard repertory is great and deserves the respect it has, but it should not be treated like untouchable scripture. There’s a lot of work out there waiting to be created or rediscovered. There are no excuses.

And while we wait for other companies to take note, this performance will be streamed via the Fisher Center’s online platform.


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