When writing "Le Roi Arthus" during an almost ten years span (1886-1895), Ernest Chausson was one of many who had both the fortunes and the misfortunes of being under Wagner's enormous spell. Richard Wagner was a progressive, revolutionary musical genius whom many composers learned from. But establishing one's musical identity in the midst of being under Wagner's influence proved to be a difficult, sometimes even onerous task, and it is a matter of degree in ingenuity, talent, and even training that can dictate a certain degree of freshness and genius versus derivations and less-than sure footedness. Even politics and circumstances had effects of a musical artist finding his/her way. Hence, it took years for Bruckner to shed much of his Wagner leanings to write music of remarkable transcendental qualities that is clearly his own. But composers like Engelbert Humperdinck and Wagner's son Siegfried were not entirely so lucky and consequently their works suffer from qualities that are not so longlasting in value.
Chausson's opera in three acts shows so much of a genius this composer could be. His leanings towards Wagner are evident, but much of the work is individual in character. The prelude is by itself promising in that regard (and much of it is indeed well-fulfilled). But the neglect of the work was more historical and political than the qualities it possesses. France during the 19th century was struggling with its fondness toward Wagner (and particularly his Tannhauser, which shook France by its foundations after the 1861 Paris production of the opera) and the need to establish its musical identity. Massenet, Debussy, Franck, and later Faure gave France a much needed answer to its struggle for such an identity. However, works that lean towards the German master were neglected, and Chausson (as well as Dukas in his Ariane et Barbe-bleue of 1907 and Lalo in Le Roi d'Ys) suffered as a result. As Leon Botstein notes in his revealing booklet essay, the matter remains largely unresolved long after the 1903 premiere of `Arthus.'
The aforementioned conflict evidently affected Ernest Chausson as he was composing "Le Roi Arthus". An extremely well-read and a well-versed musical artist in his own right, Chausson confessed to Claude Debussy, who was beginning to compose "Pelleas et Melisande," of his struggles to overcoming Wagner's influence (something Debussy was dealing with as well). The subject matter was a problematic one for Chausson as was the composition of the music. The love between Lancelot and Genievre derives much from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde." But, for Chausson, love should go beyond the superficiality. In reading Steven Heubner's booklet essay, Chausson writes in his diary that what is called love is the desire for self-centured pleasure. Love, according to the composer, must be more than that. It must be resplendent (or glowing), trancendental in quality: the quality of mankind where one must give oneself absolutely and totally (hence the word loyalty). Lancelot's love for Genievre is in a constant struggle with his loyalty for King Arthus. There's really nothing effasive and elusive in Chausson's tackling of this issue. His treatment in the conflict is straitforward as it is compelling. The first act (scene III) spells out the love between Lancelot and Genievre, with Mordred, a nephew of the King, vowing revenge against them for he too is in love with her. For me, however, the second act is the most gripping of the opera. It is where Lancelot (unlike Tristan) is filled with a sense of guilt and remorse for betraying the King (as he confesses this to the Plowman), while Guinevere is ignobly concerned only with saving her reputation after being denounced by Mordred: their tense, white-hot emotions are expressed in passionate paragraphs, exciting musical passages, and compelling orchestration that owes much to Wagner as to Chausson himself. This opera is well above the superficiality and the cheapness that so many had claimed it to be after its 1903 posthumous premiere in Brussels, Belgium.
Performances, recording, and the overall presentation are all-round immaculate and imaginative throughout. Susan Bullock sings the role of Genievre ardently and with pure passion. Her voice may not be as piercing as the late Birgit Nilsson of Isolde, but commanding and artistic nevertheless. Her theatrical portrayal of Genievre's anguish and frustration in scene III of Act II is well brought out in many ways that are beyond the studio-bound performance and she brings a sort of madness to her role particularly towards the end of scene two of Act III (in a midst of a battle between Lancelot and Le Roi Arthus). I like Andrew Schroeder's Arthus in his in-your-face humanity as the King. But Simon O'Neill's role as Lancelot is as gripping as Bullock in her personification of Genievre. Lancelot's inner and outer conflicts are real and O'Neill brings out the torments that consumes him in ways that perhaps only Manfred can relate to (and imagine what Tchaikovsky would've thought of Chausson's opera had he lived much longer). Francois Le Roux sings Merlin with an appropriate yet appealing level-headedness and the smaller roles are indeed well cast. The BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Apollo Voices are excellent and definitely true to their forms while Botstein continues to be among the best advocates of neglected masterworks. And while "Le Roi Arthus" will not be deemed as a masterpiece in the eyes and ears of many, it is Botstein, with such a gift and ardency in his overall presentation, who would have you think twice (and deeply).