242. Le roi Arthus (Chausson)

  • Drame lyrique in 3 acts
  • Composer and libretto: Ernest Chausson
  • First performed: Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels, 30th November 1903, conducted by Sylvain Dupuis

GENIÈVREMezzoJeanne Paquot-d’Assy
ARTHUSBaritoneHenri Albers
LANCELOTTenorCharles Dalmorès
LYONNELTenorErnest Forgeur
ALLANBassJean Vallier
MERLINBaritoneÉdouard Cotreuil
A LabourerTenorHenner
A Knight /
A Herald
SoldiersTenors BassesDisy, Henner Austin, Danlée
Knights, Heralds, Pages, Bards, Genièvre’s Waiting-WomenChorus 

SETTING: Arthus’s palace at Carduel [Wales], and in the countryside.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Les temps sont accomplis des grandes aventures, 
Des chevaliers vaillants bardés d’or et de fer, 
Doux pour les malheureux, terribles aux parjures ; 
Rochers debout contre la mer… 

Finished now is the time of great adventures, of valiant knights clad in gold and iron, gentle to the unfortunate, terrible to traitors; rocks standing against the sea…

Arthus, Act III

Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) sounded the death knell of Romanticism and Wagnerism in France; Le roi Arthus, premièred a year later, is its twilight. Like Pelléas, Arthus was composed in the 1890s, but did not appear until the dawn of 20th century – by which time its composer was dead. While Arthus lives to see his dream tumble into ruin, Chausson never even saw his come to fruition.

Armin Jordan, 1986.

Le roi Arthus was Chausson’s only opera. Independently wealthy, he studied law to please his father, but his passion was for music. He studied with Jules Massenet and César Franck. He was a painstaking artist who found composition slow and difficult; he only produced a handful of works, including one symphony, a song cycle (Le Poème de l’amour et de la mer), a symphonic poem (Viviane), and another Poème for violin and orchestra. Pierre Lalo (Le Temps) described his musical personality as “a deep, sweet, and serious sensitivity; a deliberately melancholy lyricism whose expression, both ample and restrained, achieves a penetrating emotion; [and] a melodic inspiration at once spontaneous and refined”. Like many of his generation, he fell under the spell of Wagner: he and Vincent d’Indy attended the première of Parsifal (1882).

Le roi Arthus is in many ways Chausson’s response to Wagner, particularly Tristan und Isolde (1865). It comes from the same Arthurian cycle (which, Huebner notes, the French claimed as their own). Both concern the same premise: the adulterous love between a king’s best knight and the queen. Chausson himself was concerned that the story too much resembled that of Tristan. But, as P. D. (Chronique des arts et de la curiosité) observed, while Tristan and Isolde are innocent victims of “a delicious and deadly destiny”, Lancelot and Ginèvre are guilty lovers who are aware of their crime and seek to justify it by expiation.

Ginèvre is, in fact, a vicious bitch: the quintessential French femme fatale who seduces and almost destroys the man. (Like Dalila, for instance.) “L’amour est le seul maître suprême,” she tells Lancelot in Act I. “Je t’aime éperdument, sans remords, san effroi. Je ne sais rien de plus que je t’aime.” She insists that flee with her, and lie to his king. Huebner suggests intriguingly that she is aware of Wagner’s opera, and uses its music to manipulate Lancelot. But while both knights lose their honour in betraying their king, their father-figure, in the end, Lancelot, unlike Tristan, chooses to do his duty, rather than abandon himself to lust. In the traditional version (e.g., Malory), Guenevere and Lancelot both survive Arthur’s death, and enter holy orders. Here, Lancelot dies of his wounds on the battlefield, and Ginèvre throttles herself with her own hair. (Between Pelléas mooning over Mélisande’s hair and the abundant locks of the Pre-Raphaelite ladies, hair fetishism seems to have been a thing in the Belle Époque.)

Ginèvre’s love is selfish; Arthus’s is selfless. He seeks justice in a fallen, treacherous world, and sees his hopes destroyed by his wife, his champion, and his nephew. (Mordred is here little more than a substitute for Melot, the envious knight who tells the king.) He counted too much on the virtue of men, Merlin tells him. In Malory, Arthur sentences Guenevere to be burnt at the stake; Lancelot rescues her, and takes her to France; Mordred seizes the throne; Arthur kills Mordred at Camlann, but is himself wounded. None of this occurs in the opera. Instead, Arthus’s blow is to his heart: he has witnessed the destruction of his ideal, and he cannot survive that betrayal. At the end, the boat takes him to Avalon, where he will sleep and heal until he is needed again. As he is carried away, invisible spirits tell him that he will resume his great work, and he will triumph because he believed in the Ideal.

Chausson’s score owes much to Wagner. The first scene is in the heroic vein of late 19th century French opera (e.g. Ernest Reyer’s Sigurd, 1884). It opens with a noisy, bellicose prelude; Arthus’s noble declamation; and carousing courtiers. There is an impressive double chorus, some praising Lancelot, while Mordred and others gnash their teeth with jealousy.

The rest of the opera is more Wagnerian. Lancelot and Ginèvre’s nocturnal duet, “Délicieux oubli des choses de la terre », is clearly modelled on the Liebesnacht in Tristan. It is in the same key; the same mood (calm and tender, then ecstatic as the lovers lose themselves in each other); and has the same imagery (contrast between night and unwelcome day, reality and illusion). Lancelot’s squire Lyonnel warns the couple dawn is breaking, as Brangäne does; Mordred catches them and raises the alarm, and is wounded by Lancelot, just as Melot does and is; and Lancelot flees, like Tristan.

The Act II prelude depicts a forest coming to life in dawn – a lovely piece of orchestral writing; it is Impressionistic, even Debussyan. Lancelot’s self-reproachful monologue and the labourer’s a capella song recall Act III of Tristan, while the long (overlong!) dialogue between Lancelot and Ginèvre resembles Act I: free ranging arioso and surging chromaticism. At the end, the curtain falls as quickly on the couple embracing as it does on Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre; Chausson ends the scene with what sounds like a tumult of Wagnerian quotations.

The most inspired music in Chausson’s opera is the apotheosis of Arthus at the end of Act III. He had the flower maidens (Parsifal) in mind: invisible choruses of soprani create a transcendent effect. Lalo commented that the grace and purity of the chorus glorifying the fallen hero, the voices and orchestra exhaling an infinite and serene melancholy which envelops the sky and the sea like the light of sunset, were the very heart of the musician that spoke.

Chausson worked on Le roi Arthus for nine years, from 1886 to 1895. Neither the Opéra nor the Opéra-Comique were interested, however, and publishers advised him not to accept offers from Germany, Vienna, or Italy. When Chausson was killed in a bicycle accident in June 1899, Vincent d’Indy negotiated with La Monnaie, Brussels – effectively Paris’s third great opera house – to produce the opera.

It was a moderate success. Lalo wrote that Le roi Arthus was distinguished by “the nobility of feeling and thought, the expressive simplicity of style, far superior to what is usual in operas”. M.-D. Calvocoressi (Revue musicale de Lyon) called it “the expression of an artless, sincere, and deep sensitivity, the work of a poet and musician who lacked neither gentleness nor power, nor the beauty of expression”. Lucien Solvay (Le Ménestrel), however, considered the opera “a singular mixture of lyricism and convention”. Chausson had given himself up to his Wagnerian fascination with all the enthusiasm of an ardent believer, and yet his opera was French in its clarity, harmonic distinction, and horror of longwindedness. It was magnificent, noble, and powerful.

Le roi Arthus was performed 12 times in Brussels, then largely forgotten. Only the third act was ever performed in Paris, in 1916, conducted by d’Indy. “The sorrowful and sublime beauties made a great impression,” Henri Quittard (Le Figaro) commented. “It is inconceivable … that a work such as this, so lofty in scope, so magnificent in appearance, and so suited to superbly illustrating the noblest efforts of our French school, has not found in France a great theatre which deigns to welcome it.”

Since the 1980s, it has been revived several times – notably in Paris in 2015, with Roberto Alagna and a banal modern staging, and at the Bard Music Festival in 2021. Vincent Giroud calls it “a powerful, stirring opera, surprisingly effective dramatically, and the greatest legacy of a deeply individual composer”. It is the most famous example of French fin de siècle Wagnerism, and an intriguing French take on the Matter of Britain. But it does not hold a candle to that “one brief shining moment” that is Camelot.


Listen to: Teresa Zylis-Gara (Ginèvre), Gino Quilico (Arthus), and Gösta Winbergh (Lancelot), with the Choeurs de Radio France and the Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique, conducted by Armin Jordan, Paris, 1986. Erato B000009HVG.

Works consulted

  • P. D., La Chronique des arts et de la curiosité, 5th December 1903
  • Lucien Solvay, Le Ménestrel, 6th December 1903
  • M.-D. Calvocoressi, Revue musicale de Lyon, 8th December 1903
  • Pierre Lalo, Le Temps, 22nd December 1903
  • Eug. Georges, Le Progrès artistique, 7th January 1904
  • Vincent Giroud, French Opera: A Short History, Yale University Press, 2010
  • Steven Huebner, French Opera at the Fin de Siècle: Wagnerism, Nationalism, and Style, Oxford University Press, 1999
  • Association l’Art Lyrique Français, l’Art Lyrique Français

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