The plot thickens: Chabrier's Le roi Malgre lui has a notoriously complex libretto. Enter the translator Jeremy Sams

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The Independent Culture
The king of the title may still be reluctant, but not much else remains of the plot of the original Le roi malgre lui in a new production for Opera North. That maverick among French composers, Emmanuel Chabrier, breezed through the set-pieces of the score with unflagging inspiration, undaunted by the various inept hands laid on the libretto of his opera comique. It has been Jeremy Sams's curious task as adapter and translator to try and find the kind of predicaments and situations which might have inspired Chabrier had he played by the rule of most operatic masterpieces and let the libretto be his guide.

'It's a fantastically bizarre thing to want to do. There are crosswords where you start with an empty diagram and fill in the blocks and end up writing the clues. This is like that: not so much crossword solving as crossword setting,' says Sams.

His task was an unenviable one. He's well aware that 'the fact this opera was so long hampered by a silly plot is the most boring bit of information about it'. He set himself the goal of making his variation on the theme of royalty in disguise simpler and clearer, of 'making sure that the moment you want characters to explain who they are, the music doesn't dictate that they leave the stage'.

Sams needed little encouragement to take liberties with such a confusing original libretto. 'In a section where the music does the most extraordinary things, goes through bizarre enharmonic changes, I can write text which goes, 'My life was shifting and changing until I set eyes on you,' at which point the music settles on a harmony. Everyone will say, that's Chabrier's fantastic word-painting, but it's not, it's the other way round.'

If something is lost in the translation, Sams does not hesitate to make up for it. The National Theatre's Les Parents Terribles was not Cocteau's usual callow parade of sacred monsters; it was very moving - partly, it turns out, because Sams had taken Cocteau's shocks for granted and grafted on to them the humanity he felt was missing. 'Lots of that was stuff that I was going through, little bits are written and others taken away. Who's to say exactly what the play is? If you did translate the original exactly, it wouldn't be heard by the same audiences in the same way. There's no such thing as 'the play'; 'the play' is how it's performed and how it's perceived and directed, you're not falsifying anything because it doesn't exist.'

Le roi malgre lui takes that experimentation to the limits. 'This particular opera is packed with the kind of things that are preoccupying me at the moment,' he says. Chief among them is the predicament of indecisive characters. 'My favourite characters in all opera are the couples in La boheme because they can't get their relationships together, and I think that's so fantastically modern and honest.'

Sams is now considering his next step. He wonders, not entirely tongue in cheek, about the Lear Verdi that was mapped out but never composed. 'I'd like to follow his ground-plan, take the best moments from his other operas and give them different words . . .'

'Le roi malgre lui' is at King's Theatre, Edinburgh, tonight and 3 Sept only (Booking: 031-225 5756). Opens in Leeds on 5 Oct (Booking: 0532-459351)

(Photograph omitted)