Le roi d’Ys

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.

Édouard Lalo, Le roi d’Ys

By Vincent Giroud, Professor, Université de Franche-Comté

Written for the concert Le roi d’Ys, performed on Oct 3, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Like his friend and admirer Emmanuel Chabrier, Édouard Lalo (1823-92) had an unorthodox musical career: he was never formally enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire, nor did he compete for the Prix de Rome, then a rite of passage for any aspiring French opera composer. Trained as a violinist, he became a chamber musician – unusual in a French musician of his generation, he liked Brahms – and his first successes, by which time he was in his fifties, were in instrumental music: the Symphonie espagnole (1874) and Rapsodie norvégienne (1878), both written for Pablo de Sarasate, and the Cello Concerto (1876). Yet he had completed a historical opera based on Schiller’s tragedy Fiesque. It failed to get a prize at a government-sponsored competition in 1867 and remained unperformed until the 21st century: some of its music was recycled, for example, in the love duet in the wedding scene of Le roi d’Ys.

Lalo’s interest in the folklore of Brittany was prompted by the fact that his wife, the contralto Julie de Maligny, was of Breton origin. His librettist, Édouard Blau (one of Massenet’s collaborators for Werther) heard from a friend about the medieval legend of the city of Ys. Supposedly located off the bay of Douarnenez, Ys was submerged as divine punishment for the debauchery of the daughter of King Gradlon – the “roi d’Ys” of the title, though in the opera he is nameless, like the Pharaoh in Aida, and plays a very limited role. (The church bells of Ys, still ringing in the ocean, later inspired Debussy’s piano prelude La cathédrale engloutie). A first version of the opera was completed in 1875 but it was turned down by both the Opéra and the Théâtre-Lyrique. Extracts were heard in concert (with Julie Lalo as Margared) but it was years later, and after the work had been thoroughly revised in 1886-7, that the Opéra-Comique, installed on the Place du Châtelet since the 1887 fire of the Salle Favart, premiered it in May 1888. The great tenor Alexandre Talazac, the first Hoffmann in Offenbach’s opera and Des Grieux in Manon, sang Mylio, while Margared was Blanche Deschamps, later the first Dalila at the Paris Opera. The success was enormous, and the work remained popular at the Opéra-Comique (by then no longer reserved for works with spoken dialogue) until it was transferred to the Opéra in 1941.

Lalo, like nearly all French composers in his generation, was deeply impressed by Wagner’s works; Le roi d’Ys, like many French operas of the period from Carmen to Pelléas et Mélisande, can be interpreted as a response to the challenge posed by Wagner’s artistic supremacy: a clue is given in the overture, which briefly quotes the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhaüser. The choice of Celtic – as opposed to classical – mythology as subject may be seen as a Wagnerian gesture. The contrast between the two couples, one virtuous (Rozenn and Mylio), one guilty (Margared and Karnac) obviously recalls Lohengrin, while Margared’s final leap into the ocean may also bring to mind the end of The Flying Dutchman. But these are superficial resemblances. As he himself explained in a letter to the critic Adolphe Jullien after the premiere, Lalo had toyed with the idea of couching the work as a lyric drama, with a leitmotiv-based, continuous symphonic texture and the voices blending with the orchestra. Fearing he would produce only a pale imitation, he decided instead to remain faithful to a typically French eclecticism in the tradition of Berlioz and Gounod: the work is organized in short, clearly separated numbers (arias, duets, and ensembles) while the vocal writing, rather than being subservient to broad, highly developed symphonic textures, is unabashedly melodic and lyrical. Local color is provided by citations of folk tunes in three of the choruses. By Lalo’s own account, these were sung to him by his Breton wife, even though one of them, as the Lalo scholar Joël-Marie Fauquet has pointed out, was in fact from the Île-de-France rather than Brittany. The intervention of St Corentin, popular in that region, reinforces this folk quality, rooted in the French soil. At a time when Bizet, Delibes, and Massenet turned for inspiration to Spain or India, Le roi d’Ys, by contrast, comes close, as Hugh Macdonald has perceptively argued, to being a “national” opera. Next to those rather traditional features, the work, however, is not lacking in modernism and originality: these are found in the robust, rhythmic vitality of its orchestral writing; its highly personal sense of color; and perhaps above all in the emotional intensity conveyed by the part of Margared, the role Lalo had conceived for his wife, and which reminds us that this once beloved opera was itself a labor of love.