Had it not been for "un stupide accident de bicyclette" - head injuries sustained while cycling in Brittany - what further riches might Ernest Chausson have bestowed on us? Pupil of Massenet and Franck, friend of Debussy and Degas, Chausson (1855-99) was one of France's great hopes when he died aged 44 on that Breton byway.
Like Debussy and his long agony over Pelléas, Chausson needed a decade (1886-95) to finish his operatic masterpiece, Le Roi Arthus (King Arthur). It was not seen till four years after his death, in 1903 at Brussels's Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie, where it has just been treated to a new production directed by the Canadian Matthew Jocelyn, vividly designed by Alain Lagarde and breathtakingly lit by Dominique Bruguière.
It is de rigueur to dismiss Le Roi Arthus as poor man's Wagner. I'll stick my neck out and say: "Rubbish!" What the Monnaie audience was treated to by the Milanese conductor Daniele Callegari, former musical director at Wexford and a Munich and Berlin regular, was a miracle.
For all the Tristan ambience and chordal associations, this Arthurian tale (in fact, it's more of a Guinevere-and-Lancelot story) is no mere Wagner clone, but a score packed with French sensibilité and a Symbolist, world-weary wisdom.
As an unreconstructed Excalibur addict, I found that David Bintley's Arthur ballet tableaux only sporadically hit the mark. Chausson's Arthurian encounter echoes more the acclaimed Bintley/McCabe Edward II: a love triangle (or, rather, personality triangle) played out with sharp characterisation. Guinevere emerges as a Lady Macbeth-cum-Delilah, obsessed more with power than with passion, egging on her weakling Lancelot - a right mess by the end - in all the wrong decisions. Chausson's battle betters Shakespeare; only Arthur's swordless apotheosis seemed a fraction subdued.
The big choruses were terrific; the cast (one of two) was unbeatable. As Genièvre (Guinevere), Hélène Bernardy has strength and weight without artifice. She broods, pouts, roars, manipulates with equal authority, ruling the roost as she floats from side to side on a brilliantly lit upper platform: her world-defying suicide - a potential dramatic disaster (she garrottes herself with her own hair) - was unexpectedly and ingeniously plotted.
The American baritone Andrew Schroeder had just the right warm legato line - and torn regal presence - to make Arthur believable and human. The German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt seemed a purpose-built Lancelot. The spine- tingling surprise was the baritone Olivier Lallouette's brilliantly eerie back-from-the-dead Merlin; added pleasures were Yves Saelens's noble Lyonnel and the tenor Lorenzo Carola's agreeable off-stage, puppet-portrayed ploughman. Callegari's orchestra served up a feast for the Round Table.
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