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Opera is passionate, poignant


In his short life (he died at 44 in a bicycle accident), Ernest Chausson wrote a relatively small but varied body of works that showed him to be a remarkably talented composer. But although his compositions are of the same high artistic caliber as those of his contemporaries, Gabriel Faure and Cesar Franck, precious little of Chausson's music is performed today.

His reputation rests mainly on the ubiquitous, though lovely, "Poeme" for violin and orchestra and the Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet. And while the rest of his works are only occasionally performed, some have fallen shamelessly into neglect.

One of these neglected works is the opera "Le Roi Arthus," which Chausson worked on intermittently during the last decade of his life. The story (with a libretto by the composer) is a retelling of the King Arthur legend.

Comparison to Richard Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" is unavoidable. Both operas deal with illicit love, betrayal, revenge and ultimate redemption. The love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot, which enrages Mordred, since he, too, is in love with Guinevere, is central to the story.

When Arthur discovers the truth about his wife and his most trusted knight, he compels Lancelot to fight him. But Lancelot, refusing to take up arms against the king, goes into battle without his sword and is mortally wounded. Remorseful that she forced Lancelot into this hopeless situation, Guinevere commits suicide. In the end, Arthur is left to grieve over the dead.

It shouldn't be considered coincidental that Chausson's opera mirrors "Tristan und Isolde." As a composer, Chausson, as so many of his contemporaries, was enamored of Wagner's music. Chausson created a unique musical style in which the best of French music (an abundantly rich melodicism and a luxuriant harmonic language) is combined with Wagner's ideals (motivic development and a sophistication that borders on the intellectual).

The score that Chausson created for "Le Roi Arthus" is one of his most vivid and compelling. That the work hasn't found a place in the standard repertoire is astonishing. It is one of the most gorgeous and transcendent works to come out of fin-de-siecle France. The music is filled with passion and poignancy.

Thanks to conductor Leon Botstein and Telarc, "Le Roi Arthus" has finally been recorded. Botstein has assembled a superb cast, with baritone Andrew Schroeder as Arthur, tenor Simon O'Neill as Lancelot and soprano Susan Bullock as Guinevere.

Their singing captures the drama and ardor of the score wonderfully. The supporting cast is no less spectacular, and Apollo Voices bring depth and earnestness to the choral passages.

Botstein elicits a perceptive, thoughtful and compelling performance from his vocal forces, as well as from the BBC Symphony, which plays with forceful conviction.