Reviving important but neglected operas is one of the ways the Bard SummerScape festival paints a faithfully-nuanced portrait of each past age, and this year’s exploration of “Saint-Saëns and His World” is no exception. To enrich its immersion in the music of Belle Époque France, with all its trademark opulence and emotional richness, Bard presents the first staged revival of the original 1887 version of The King in Spite of Himself (Le roi malgré lui) by Saint-Saëns’s compatriot and contemporary Emmanuel Chabrier.
The production, starring the, “lyrical, expressive baritone‚” (New York Times) of Liam Bonner, will receive a contemporary treatment from Thaddeus Strassberger, director of SummerScape’s previous hit productions of Les Huguenots and The Distant Sound. The opera’s five performances (July 27 & 29; August 1, 3, & 5) involve the festival’s resident American Symphony Orchestra with music director Leon Botstein, whose 2005 concert performance of the opéra-comique was “vibrant and assured‚” (New York Times). This summer, Botstein also leads an all-too-rare concert performance of Saint-Saëns’s own grand opera Henry VIII, which will bring the 23rd annual Bard Music Festival — indeed, the entire seven-week Bard SummerScape festival — to a thrilling close on Sunday, August 19.
Bard, Botstein, and the American Symphony Orchestra have long been recognized for their ardent championship of French opera. Besides the Strassberger production of Meyerbeer — extravaganza Les Huguenots, Botstein has led performances of such rare French fare as Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue and Chausson’s Le roi Arthus (both of which he recorded for the Telarc label), and Lalo’s Le roi d’Ys. Together, SummerScape’s two operatic offerings for 2012 help evoke a dazzlingly creative and colorful era in European history: a Golden Age of promise and possibility that came to an end with the tragedy of World War I.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 — 1921), whose long and remarkable career both spanned and helped shape the course of French music from Gounod to Ravel, was a prolific composer and an exceptionally versatile musician. He and Emmanuel Chabrier (1841 — 94) were well-known to each other (Saint-Saëns was a regular guest at the younger composer’s apartment) and Chabrier was among those who most vociferously championed Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah, thereby contributing to its subsequent phenomenal success. Yet where Saint-Saëns was considered the quintessential polished professional, Chabrier was not held in as high esteem by his peers. Saint-Saëns followed fame as a child prodigy with studies at the Paris Conservatoire; by contrast, Chabrier attended law school and only began composing full-time after almost two decades of white-collar work in the French civil service. As a consequence, his musical training was unorthodox, amounting only to piano lessons with a pair of Spanish refugees and studies with a Polish-Lithuanian violinist. Paradoxically, however, it was Chabrier’s oeuvre that the leading composers of the next generation — Debussy, Ravel, Satie, and Poulenc — would most admire.
Although today he is remembered primarily for two orchestral works, España and Joyeuse marche, Chabrier also left an important body of operas, including the rarely performed The King in Spite of Himself (Le roi malgré lui, 1887). Loosely based on history — by way of popular historical novelist Alexandre Dumas — the opera tells the story of Henri de Valois, a 16th-century noble named King of Poland despite pining for his native France. The opera’s performance history was hardly more straightforward than its elaborate comic plot; its opening run was cut short prematurely when the Opéra-Comique’s theater was ravaged by fire on the fourth night.
Such revivals as have since been undertaken are usually on the concert platform rather than in the opera house, and make use of later, revised versions of the work. Yet the opera balances farce and romance with elegant economy, and boasts a score so rich and original that Ravel claimed its première — changed the course of French harmony. — Likewise, modern critics have come to recognize that, in the words of Pulitzer Prize-winner Harold C. Schonberg, “Chabrier’s masterpiece is Le roi malgré lui, a lighthearted work of extraordinary sophistication. It should be revived.”
An Interview with chorus master James Bagwell from The Fisher Center on Vimeo.
It was Leon Botstein who, in concert with the American Symphony Orchestra, first returned to the text of the 1887 première, to the gratified delight of the New York press. The New York Times’s Anthony Tommasini reported:
Leon Botstein, that tireless champion of the unjustly overlooked, has come to the rescue of an even more neglected Chabrier comedy, Le roi malgré lui (The King in Spite of Himself). …Mr. Botstein led‚ …a vibrant and assured concert performance of this utterly enchanting work from 1887. …From the wondrous opening fanfare for brass and winds, with its wayward phrase structure and playful hints of medieval harmony, the score is glorious. …Mr. Botstein deserves the most credit for bringing us this inexplicably neglected opera…
As the New York Sun confirmed,
Judging from [this] spirited performance and the audience’s roar of delight at the conclusion, Le roi’s time has come. Conductor Leon Botstein drew stunning moments of beauty from his instrumentalists. …Mr. Botstein’s obvious passion for Le roi malgré lui paid off. …
Now SummerScape is in the happy position of restoring Chabrier’s masterpiece in its original form to the opera house in a new, fully-staged production, highlighting Botstein’s tried and tested musical direction in a modern treatment by Thaddeus Strassberger, whose previous SummerScape opera productions rank among Bard’s undisputed success stories. Of his way with Meyerbeer in 2009, the Wall Street Journal noted:
Mr. Strassberger directed intimate moments and crowd scenes with equal skill, making smooth segues from the personal into the political. …A triumph …
and the Financial Times declared:
Les Huguenots in Bard’s staging is a thriller from beginning to end. …Five Stars.
Similarly, of SummerScape’s 2010 presentation of Schreker’s The Distant Sound, the Wall Street Journal observed:
Strassberger’s engrossing production reflected the experimental nature of the opera by seamlessly integrating period films and giving the show a modernist, distancing aura,…
while New York magazine named it one of the:
Top Ten Classical Music Events of 2010…
A coproduction with Ireland’s Wexford Festival Opera (which annually hosts one of the world’s finest opera showcases), the new staging stars baritone Liam Bonner, who made his SummerScape debut in the U.S. première of Kurt Weill’s Royal Palace in 2010, and who extended his string of French repertory successes with the title role in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at Opera Theatre of St. Louis last season. In Chabrier’s title role, Bonner leads a strong cast, with tenor Michele Angelini, “bursting with vocal promise‚” (Denver Post) as Henri’s friend Nangis; and, as slave girl and love interest Minka, Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman, one of the “rising stars‚” of Chicago’s Lyric Opera. Set design is courtesy of Barrymore Award-winner Kevin Knight, whose international credits include the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; with costumes by Mattie Ullrich, who previously teamed up with Bard for Les Huguenots, and whose “canny costuming deserves unqualified praise‚” (New York magazine).
Interview with Liam Bonner from The Fisher Center on Vimeo.
The production runs for five performances (July 27 & 29; August 1, 3, & 5), with an Opera Talk from Leon Botstein before the show on Sunday, July 29 at 1:00pm, free and open to the public.
As director Thaddeus Strassberger remarks:
Bard SummerScape’s bucolic setting allows everyone involved with the opera production really to focus on doing just one thing and doing it well, which is important in the Fisher Center because everything gets seen on that stage. Every look, every movement: it all reads in the house…
Bard SummerScape Ticket Information
For tickets and further information on all SummerScape events, call the Fisher Center box office at 845 – 758-7900 or visit www.fishercenter.bard.edu.
Featured image by Peter Aaron / ESTO