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Monarch Butterly

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
10/03/2008 -  
Edouard Lalo: Le Roi d’Ys
Georgia Jarman (Rozenn), Dana Beth Miller (Margared), Frédéric Antoun (Mylio), Eugene Brancoveanu (Karnac), Curtis Streetman (Le Roi), Andrew Nolan (Corentin/Jahel)
Concert Chorale of New York, James Bagwell (Director), American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein (Conductor)

Leon Botstein (© Steve J. Sherman)

In addition to running a university, writing scholarly essays, discovering new music from old archives and wielding a mean baton on three continents, Leon Botstein could also be considered something of Monarch Butterfly. Specifically, he has flitted from one king to another these past years, and crowned each of them with his own musical jewels.

The first time I heard Botstein, after returning to America, was where the King of the Gods, Zeus, took a licking in Strauss’s The Love of Danae. More recently, this summer at Bard College, he presented Szymanowski’s King Roger, a badly staged but exquisitely beautiful score. He took on the King Arthur of Ernest Chausson recently, and last night, gave a concert performance of Edouard Lalo’s Le Roi d’Ys.

Yes, the last name seems something of a Scrabble stumper (the King doesn’t have a name in the opera), but not only was Ys a celebrated legendary town of Brittany, but Claude Debussy modeled his Engulfed Cathedral on the mythical Katrina-style drowning of the city in an old Breton legend. The same legend which Lalo used here, for while the composer wasn’t from the province, his singer wife was from Brittany, and he wrote this for her.

The Debussy is well known. Lalo’s opera was run for four performances at the Met in 1922, with Rosa Ponselle as Rozenn, but never was revived. That is particularly surprising, since the overture is fairly popular, and some of the leitmotifs à la française are taken directly from this overture. Even more important, the relatively swift opera (less than two hours long) is energetic, has an easily understandable plot, some psychological questions (sibling rivalry, sacrifices) and – presumably when the opera is staged – some terrific set pieces, worth of a Halévy or Meyerbeer.

I would love to see on stage a scene of soldiers and villagers moving into a church (organ blaring loudly, chorus singing Te Deum Laudamus), as the bad Margared plots with the bad Karnac to destroy the city by opening the floodgates. It would be fun to see the flood itself (the orchestral reproduction is the least impressive music), with Margared plunging into the water to save the people.

The marches are reminiscent of Berlioz at his blazoning best. The offstage trumpet calls summon up pictures of regal grandeur, the massive choruses need a big stage, and one can even picture some of the medieval Breton battle techniques, while the chorus is singing.

(This of course presupposes that one can afford Brittany spears, reputed to be exorbitantly expensive.)

Nonetheless, in this concert version. Maestro Botstein led the inflated American Symphony Orchestra in all the fanfares, the countless kettledrum rolls (all credit to Barry Centani and Charles Descarfino), and the energy – the most important factor – to make this opera go full steam ahead.

This doesn’t count a few very beautiful arias. The well-known aubade with chorus sung by Rozenn (“Puisqu’une âme rebelle…” is a treat, as well as a duet with the lovers (the only purely love duet in a opera filled with revenge). But most important is that the choruses here are frequent, strong, highly lyrical, and apparently based on some old songs of Brittany itself.

The Concert Chorale is the most dependable chorus in New York for bringing out the best of everything. Here, from the opening wedding song to the terror moments of the flood, and the Act II scene bringing together church, singing saint, and melodrama was a great piece of composition.

The singers here were perfectly adequate, mainly Georgia Jarman as Rozenn, who was restrained vocally but dramatically impressive as she saw her sister going down the road to desperation. Dana Beth Miller plays that ill-fated sister, with some lovely top notes in the contralto range, though not terribly impressive low in the register. Still, the duet of the sisters at the beginning of the opera was effective as were her great solos toward the end.

Of the men, Frédéric Antoun was the most Gallic leading man (with a few beautiful almost falsetto top notes), while Eugene Brancoveanu played the evil Karnak with a steady baritone and Curtis Streetman was a confused king. Andrew Norton’s two roles were well essayed, and he made a terrific saint.

But while the soloists were basically good, Lalo’s music was more important here. Compared to second-rate longwinded Italian operas at the Met this season (no names mentioned), Le Roi d’Ys gets to its point quickly, the songs and choruses and even the melodic recitatives are more than accessible. In sum, Maestro Botstein can have the unending pleasure of digging up one more regal treasure to augment his stable of monarchs.

Harry Rolnick



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