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Le Roi Malgré Lui
Le Roi Malgré Lui at Bard’s SummerScape, with Chuchman and Bonner
© Cory Weaver 2012
Emmanuel Chabrier's 1887 comic opera Le Roi Malgré Lui has always had its champions. It was good to hear the score in its beautiful, engaging, harmonically inventive — if too prolix — original version at Bard's SummerScape on August 1. On this occasion, the third of five performances, Leon Botstein led with too heavy a hand, especially in the longAct I. A prelude that should emerge from the gate promising delight to come seemed leaden. Botstein's Act II went better, but in places he fell into his habit of overdriving the orchestra and covering the singers, who were lighter-voiced here than they usually are in the heavily scored repertory that seems best suited to the conductor's natural gifts.
At least we got to enjoy a fine performance of Chabrier's magical second entr'acte, free from the visual distractions Thaddeus Strassberger wrought elsewhere. Strassberger clearly has directorial talent, but many of his strategies for augmenting the already thoroughly over-plotted narrative of Le Roi seemed borrowed from the current storehouse of Regie tricks — a live video feed, the staging of the entire second act as a variety show being filmed in a studio, etc. Even a Peter Sellars trademark orange prison uniform made two appearances — one fewer than the moving gondola with louche oarsman, which was amusing (the first time). We had flash photos being snapped onstage, orgiastic choral scenes with simulated sex, cute items descending from the flyspace, a jumble of virtually identical roomlets for Kevin Knight's Act III set, a tastelessly handled fake pregnancy, ironic onstage use of telephones, characters emerging from packing-crate containers — all the trappings. Once again, a worthy work unfamiliar to the public was flooded with visual and narrative distractions. This manner of directorial treatment for rediscovered novelties seems fundamentally counterproductive. Some of the obviously lavish prop budget would have been better deployed on additional linguistic coaching. The best elements here were Mattie Ulrich's colorful, period-spanning costumes and Marjorie Folkman's nimble choreography, well executed by six dancers.
Henri de Valois, chosen unwillingly to be King of Poland, needs to ooze vocal and interpretive charm. Liam Bonner looked terrific emerging from a wheeled-on tanning booth in his tricouleur Speedo, but his ordinary (when not shouty) timbre with its grainy vibrato, his collegiate-style posturing and his lack of poise in spoken and sung French availed him little. As his love interest (the Polish Alexina), Nathalie Paulin boasted francophone mastery and sang very charmingly despite an occasionally occluded top. The other couple is Henri's friend and (in the muddle of mistaken identities) frequent stand-in Nangis, sung here by tenor Michele Angelini, and the slave girl Minka — in Strassberger's version a starlet Mata Hari — assigned to lyric-coloratura soprano Andriana Chuchman. Both Angelini and Chuchman seem potentially ideal exponents of opéra comique and, at times, did very pleasing work, displaying some genuine charm. But both proved uneven as to production (Chuchman's highest notes tended to blare) and, especially, pitch: their extended duets, with Angelini sometimes sharp and Chuchman often flat, were more harmonically daring than Chabrier intended.
Two darker baritones are embroiled in the proceedings — Alexina's strategically grabbed husband, the Venetian Duke of Fritelli, and her murderous uncle, Count Laski. Frédéric Goncalves and Jeffrey Mattsey displayed much welcome energy and vocal panache, the Paris-born Goncalves in a well-timed buffo style running to macaronic dialogue and Mattsey, sounding refulgent, executing all kinds of inexplicable (to me) Strassberger-scripted comic turns with relish. The "Man in the Chair" watching the proceedings on TV nearly throughout (a wannabe ironic postmodern device stolen, here pointlessly, from The Drowsy Chaperone) turned out to be the innkeeper Basile (dry Spieltenor Jason Ferrante). Once again, despite the production's lapses, the ensemble energy counted for much, as did Chabrier's almost excessively prodigious craft.
The Chabrier offset Bard's August conference "Camille Saint-Saëns and His World," in which, as usual, Botstein offered a variety of panels, discussions and concerts shedding light on a composer. August 11's "Performing, Composing, and Arranging for Concert Life," in handsome, airy Olin Hall's fine acoustics, presented some vocal music but also Saint-Saëns's demonically difficult keyboard arrangements of operatic material by Gluck, Bizet and Massenet. (Rieko Aizawa movingly traversed "The Death of Thaïs.") Pei-Yao Wong sensitively accompanied Lori Guilbeau's radiant, Ariadne-ready soprano in three of Anton Rubinstein's youthful German-language songs. Guilbeau was almost too full of voice for Lakmé's duet with Mallika, but she and accomplished mezzo Jamie Van Eyck pleased the crowd with Delibes's magic before offering up with élan Massenet's three-stanza salon piece "Joie!" Swiss-born Gilles Vonsattel was dazzling in some insolently difficult Liszt and Gottschalk. If any doubt remained as to Saint-Saëns's capacity to (sometimes) write great music, surely Vonsattel and Edward Arron put it to flight with 1872's wonderful first Cello and Piano Sonata. The next afternoon, "Ars Gallica and French National Sentiment" brought mezzo Teresa Buchholz and tenor Paul Appleby, among others, to Olin to explore the musical legacy of the Société Nationale de Musique, which Saint-Saëns cofounded in 1871 as a response to the Franco–Prussian War. Appleby brought clarity, attractive tone and interpretive through-line to two familiar masterpieces by Duparc, as well as the rarely heard "unauthorized" Schubertian "Galop." Buchholz, her mezzo affecting and well-produced save for a slightly pinched top, collaborated with a piano quartet for Chausson's evergreen Chanson Perpétuelle. The singers returned for four varied, emotional songs by the formidable Augusta Holmès (1847–1903); Buchholz drew a particularly interesting piece, the archaized, lightly scored "La belle Madeleine." Lucille Chung played gracefully in all the vocal offerings. Among other pieces played, the best work of all was Saint-Saëns's early Piano Quintet.
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