By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert Le roi d’Ys, performed on Oct 3, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
Lalo’s Le roi d’Ys (1888) represents the latest foray in one of the American Symphony’s longstanding projects: to revive interest in the French operatic repertoire of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the past the orchestra has presented concert performances of Bizet’s Djamileh (1872); Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue (1907); Chausson’s Le roi Arthus (1895); and Chabrier’s Le roi malgrè lui (1887). Our ambition is in response to the oversight one encounters regarding French opera beyond the operas of Gounod and Massenet, themselves the victims of critical snobbery. The assumption that there is little of note between Bizet’s Carmen (1875) and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) is in our view groundless.
There are in fact a striking number of French operas from the turn of the last century that possess commanding musical and dramatic qualities. The cause of the short shrift given to late nineteenth-century dramatic French opera is itself complex. On one hand there is a sense that, however well-crafted they are, any of the works written between 1875 and 1900 reflected too deeply the overwhelming influence of Wagner. They do not seem, from a reductive point of view, French enough. The idea of an implacable rivalry between the German and the French in politics and culture became commonplace during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet in no other nation outside of German-speaking Europe were examples and aesthetic ambitions of Wagner so influential. Beginning with Charles Baudelaire’s famous embrace of Wagner after the notorious premiere of Tannhäuser (1845) in Paris in 1861, a large segment of the French intellectual community became perfect Wagnerites in their own way. But on the other hand, that way was not so much devotional as it was creative. Wagner inspired an outpouring of new operas that included Chabrier’s Gwendoline (1885), which bears a close resemblance to Tristan und Isolde (1859). Not surprisingly, the centrality of Wagnerism in France and its leading journal Le revue Wagnerienne sparked its own reaction. Chausson’s Le roi Arthus is filled with Wagner’s influence—it even contains moments of indirect citation. But Chausson also struggled to emancipate himself from the nearly narcotic attraction of Wagnerian harmony and use of musical time. The closing scene of Le roi Arthus is a choral apotheosis that has no parallel in Wagner. Although Debussy’s originality has its root in Wagner, particularly the Wagner of Parsifal (1882), Pelléas marked the beginning of a new modern, distinctly French musical idiom, seemingly free of Wagnerian rhetoric. Therefore, the French opera that preceded Pelléas seems neither original nor modern.
Despite French admiration for Wagner, the bitter political rivalry between Germany and France that resulted in three wars had its parallels in the formation of cultural stereotypes. The French never took to Brahms (or Mahler, for that matter), with the ironic exception of the composer of today’s opera, Lalo, and his frequently underrated contemporary Camille Saint-Saëns. German music was viewed as heavy, pedantic and distinctly non-theatrical or entertaining. French music by contrast was viewed by the Germans as light-hearted and frivolous, full of empty tunes and vacuous sentimentality. The French were specialists in style and perfumed formlessness, not substance. To the Germans, even Pelléas was unconvincing. It lacked not merely robustness from the German point of view, but musical substance. At a performance of Pelléas Richard Strauss is said to have turned to Romain Rolland (the Nobel Prize winning pacifist, writer, and distinguished musical authority) and asked, “Tell me, where is the music?”
The composers of serious French opera inspired by Wagner were well aware of the need to cultivate a distinctly French tradition and were in no sense slavish imitators. In fact many of them were fervently nationalist and indeed chauvinist in their attitude. Wagner had given them a means to create musical drama, which they wanted to appropriate for distinctly French purposes. The irony of Wagner’s influence was that the most chauvinist of composers outside of German-speaking Europe found in his ideas and strategies ways of writing music that could be detached from Wagner’s own nationalist ambitions and racist signifiers. Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, said that without his repeated encounters with Tannhäuser at the Paris Opera, he would not have had the inspiration during the Dreyfus trial to write his epoch-making declaration of Zionism, The Jewish State (1896).
It is in this context Le roi d’Ys, one of the great French operas of the nineteenth century, should be considered. Lalo chose a distinctly French subject, a myth closely tied to the landscape of his wife’s native Brittany. The work employs French folk material; indeed there seems to be nothing Germanic about this opera. Le roi d’Ys succeeds in presenting a highly charged psychological drama framed by a suspenseful plot. At the core of the opera is the juxtaposition of personalities: two male roles and two female roles. One might argue that it pulls some elements from Tannhäuser (the miracle of redemption through the salvation of the leading character, in this case Margared) and from Lohengrin (envy and treachery are defeated and order restored through self-sacrifice). Brabant is saved by Elsa despite her weakness, and so too is Ys rescued by Saint Corentin in response to Margared’s recognition of her own guilt. But although the story is mythic, unlike their Wagnerian counterparts these characters are sympathetically human. Their impulses of jealousy and rivalry are recognizable. There is none of the sort of disproportion in their characterization that one finds in the heroes Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. The music of the opera is distinctive and has an economy and clarity that provides the opera a compelling dramatic arc. Action and gesture are larger than life only when they need to be. Lalo’s characters are ordinary people dealing with human nature, with all the pettiness and weakness to which it is prone, in addition to the occasional capacity for heroism and transcendence.
Although inspired by Wagner, Lalo created what all commentators have observed as a French national drama. Lalo changes the original folktale with its Atlantis-like fate to one of triumph and miraculous intervention. For those who might have attended our performance last season of Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers, you may recall another waterlogged ending in which the sea swept in over the hapless lovers. Here, however, the onrush of the ocean is stopped by greater forces, permitting a happy ending for the city and the more benign of the two couples, Mylio and Rozenn. Death is given meaning as the cause of the nation overtakes personal passion and interest. Perhaps this patriotic lesson is why the opera is entitled The King of Ys, even though as a character the King is a relatively minor presence. He puts the drama in motion, but like Sophocles’s Laius, his actions are only a catalyst for a story all about the children.
One of the circumstances that prevented this opera from remaining in the repertory, despite its acclaim in France, is that its composer wrote only four operas, and of those Le roi d’Ys was the most successful. Lalo is much better known for his instrumental music. His Symphonie espagnole (1874) has been a staple for star violinists for decades; his Cello Concerto (1876) has enjoyed similar popularity. But like Chausson’s Le roi Arthus, this is a French opera quite distinct from those of Gounod and Massenet. It has a dramatic and musical intensity, a sonic sweep and energy that lend it excitement and gravity. Its central theme is jealousy, and in that Le roi d’Ys way can be seen as a counterpart to Carmen, but cast in a mythological framework. It is hoped that the consistency and quality of the music and the drama will lead ultimately to more well-deserved revivals outside of France both in the concert hall and on the stage.
Finally, if one can be permitted a perhaps too facile but timely observation, given the Katrina disaster, the pervasive fear of global warming, and the idea that our own coastal cities could be engulfed by the oceans, perhaps the celebration of some sacrifice for the national common good is cause for reflection, particularly if it might help spare us the fate almost suffered by Ys.