- Légende bretonne in 3 acts and 5 tableaux
- Composer: Edouard Lalo
- Libretto: Edouard Blau, after a Breton legend
- First performed: Opéra-Comique (salle du Châtelet), 7 May 1888
SETTING: The city of Ys, Brittany, 5th century AD
|MARGARED Daughter of the King of Ys||Mezzo-soprano or falcon||Blanche DESCHAMPS-JEHIN|
|ROZENN Her sister||Soprano||Cécile Simonnet|
|THE KING||Bass||Arthur Cobalet|
|SAINT CORENTIN||Bass or baritone||René Antoine Fournets|
|JAHEL||Baritone or tenor||José Bussac|
I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
– G.K. CHESTERTON
According to Breton legend, the city of Ys (Is or Kêr-Is) sank under the waves when its king’s wicked daughter opened the floodgates. Lalo’s opera on the theme was one of the most successful French operas of the late 19th century.
In Lalo and Blau’s version, the jealousy of the princess destroys the city. Margared has been promised to marry Karnac, a powerful general with whom Ys was at war; the wedding, it is hoped, will bring peace. But Margared was once in love with the warrior Mylio, who is presumed dead. When he returns alive, the bride refuses to through with the ceremony. The furious Karnac declares war; he is defeated in battle. Mylio, however, loves Margared’s younger sister, Rozenn. Their wedding is too much for Margared; she helps Karnac to unleash the ocean, destroying the city. She repents, however, and throws herself into the waters to quell their fury.
Fishermen still told strange tales of the lost city in Lalo’s lifetime. On stormy days, one could see the church steeples in the hollows of the waves; on calm days, one could hear its bells rising from the abyss, modulating the hymn of the day. (Journal des débats)
The legend is told in Count Hensart de la Villemarqué’s Chants populaires de la Bretagne (Barzaz Breiz) (1839), and versions appear in Cornwall, Wales, and Ireland. The city was built off the coast of Armorica (a province in northern France, once home to indomitable Gauls). The city was defended against invasions from the sea by a well or enormous basin. This well had a secret door, to which only the king had the key, and which he opened and closed himself when necessary. Around the year 440, Ys was ruled by King Grallon. His daughter Dahut would throw her lovers into a gulf; according to legend, their weeping voices can still be heard through the crashing waves, asking for prayers. Grallon had promised to punish his daughter’s crimes; to escape, she stole the silver key while he was sleeping, opened the door, and submerged the city.
Awakened by the disaster, the old king wanted to escape the danger; he mounted his best horse, and galloped through the night, his daughter riding behind him. But the waves pursued the riders, and it seemed they would be lost. A voice cried out to him three times: “Get rid of the demon you are carrying behind you!” Dahut felt her strength abandon her; she fell from her horse, and tumbled into the waves. The unhappy father obeyed, and suddenly the waves stopped. The king arrived safely in Quimper, which he made the capital of Cornwall.
Le Roi d’Ys was Lalo’s first-performed opera. His maiden effort was Fiesque, a grand opéra based on Schiller; Lalo composed this in 1868, at the age of 42; it came third in the Théâtre-Lyrique competition, but was rejected, and not performed until 2006. Discouraged by the failure of the work, Lalo returned to writing orchestral music; public success came with the Symphonie espagnole in 1873, when he was 50. His ballet Namouna (1882) was hissed off the stage, but became a popular concert number.
Lalo sketched ideas for Le Roi d’Ys in the 1870s. It was either inspired by or intended as a vehicle for his wife, a contralto from Brittany. The overture was performed at the Concerts Pasdeloup in 1876; it was already in the repertoire of the Sociétés symphoniques by 1888, Ernest Reyer noted. The Théâtre-Lyrique, the Opéra-Comique, and the Opéra all rejected the opera. Lalo revised the work in the mid-1880s, completing it in 1887; it was finally performed at the Opéra-Comique in 1888. It was a success, performed more than 100 times in its first year. Reyer declared it a distinguished masterwork; Arthur Pougin (although critical) called it powerful and remarkable. Lalo received the Légion d’Honneur. The opera remained in the repertoire until 1940, then at the Palais Garnier until 1967. His last opera, La Jacquerie, was unfinished when he died in 1892, completed by Arthur Coquard, and performed in 1895.
For all its former fame, Le Roi d’Ys never quite lives up to its celebrated overture, an 11-minute tone poem full of battles, the ocean, and quotes from Tannhäuser. It is a lugubrious post-Wagnerian grand opéra, with an unremarkable score.
Tropes familiar from Scribe’s libretti of the 1830s – public ceremonies, weddings (two of them), rival prima donnas, prayers, saints, and a spectacular natural disaster – are joined to elements from The Flying Dutchman (Margared’s suicidal plunge), Lohengrin (two couples, one good, one bad), and Tristan und Isolde (‘Celtic’ Middle Ages). The result is curiously unengaging; the characters are flat, and the story dramatically inert. Lalo himself confessed that only the villains interested him. He told Joncières that he lacked “the amorous fibre of Gounod and Massenet; the roles that excited me in writing Le Roi d’Ys are those of Margared and Karnac; the rest is surplus that leaves me almost indifferent.
Arthur Pougin (Le Ménestrel) described the subject as sombre and rather bare; there were no picturesque secondary episodes which would have given the story more variety; added movement, colour, and life; and offered the musician the contrasts which opera needs. Pougin was far more enthusiastic a decade or so later; in the Nouveau Larousse Illustré (1897–1904), he called the opera “noble and powerful”. “Lively and dramatic, generously inspired, written in a superb style and with a rare firmness of hand, the score of Le Roi d’Ys has poetry, colour, pathos, scenic feeling.” Auguste Vitu (Figaro) considered it more of an oratorio than an opera, given its religious elements. The religious music was grand, as befitted an oratorio, while the scenic music was too restrained for a drama. “I know masses whose dramatic feeling is more accentuated than Le Roi d’Ys; I also know some that are less full of piety and devotion, and less severe in style.”
The style is declamatory, not particularly notable for melody. (Most of the thematic material was introduced in the overture.) Figaro’s Vitu protested that it was not until Act III that Lalo revealed much melody; the first couple of acts were disconcertingly arid, composed of recitatives and psalmodies. Similarly, Pougin said Lalo’s melody did not shine by the abundance or novelty of ideas, but by its harmonic and rhythmic arrangement, and its charm and grace. (Lalo was wrong, he thought, to force his orchestra too much, and to confuse violence with energy.) An Opéra-Comique programme (1927) admitted that inspiration was sometimes neither prominent nor powerful. But it praised Lalo for the sincerity of feeling, and the correct and penetrating expression of the melodic idea (however simple and short) in the passages of tenderness or love; and for the clearness and vigour of the accentuation in the pathetic and violent episodes. The intimate and touching character of his melody approached Schumann and Schubert; the accuracy and power of his declamation seemed to proceed from Gluck.
Apart from the overture, we will draw the reader’s attention to the aubade “Vainement ma bien aimée” in Act III, once a favourite of French tenors. Otherwise, the music makes little impression. Too much of it is operatic stock gesture, or pretty in a mild way. Pougin however praised the third act, with Mylio and Rozenn’s wedding scene – itself a sort of masterpiece, with its introductory dance / chorus, Mylio and Rozenn’s stanzas, the wedding procession chorus; the ferocious scene of Karnac and Margared; the loving duet of Mylio and Rozenn; the scene of Rozenn, Margared, and the King; and the last tableau, full of sombre energy.
For all the Wagnerian elements of the plot, it it is not particularly Wagnerian in form; Pougin described it as a short, clean, fast work, with traditional arias and duets, and in which, despite its symphonic richness, the voices triumph over the orchestra; Kaminski notes that the orchestra accompanies, rather than narrates, and often plays only simple harmonies.
One feels that the wayward genius of Bayreuth would have made rather better use of this Breton legend.
- Le Roi d’Ys, Association l’Art Lyrique Français
- Auguste Vitu, Figaro, 8 May 1888
- Ernest Reyer, Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, 13 May 1888
- Arthur Pougin, Le Ménestrel, 13 May 1888
- Steven Huebner, French Opéra at the Fin de Siècle : Wagnerism, Nationalism, and Style, Oxford University Press, 1999
- Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003