Chabrier’s Opera The King in Spite of Himself Opens at Bard SummerScape 2012

“An indispensable part of the summer operatic landscape.”
– Musical America on Bard SummerScape

To enrich its immersion in the music of Belle Époque France, Bard SummerScape 2012 presents the first staged revival in the United States of The King in Spite of Himself (Le roi malgré lui) by Emmanuel Chabrier in its original 1887 version. The production, starring the “lyrical, expressive baritone” (New York Times) Liam Bonner, will receive a contemporary treatment from director Thaddeus Strassberger, whose previous SummerScape opera treatments rank among Bard’s undisputed success stories; as Opera News recently observed, “Few young stage directors in opera have demonstrated an intellectual drive to match Thaddeus Strassberger’s.” The opera’s five performances (July 27 & 29; Aug 1, 3, & 5) feature the festival’s resident American Symphony Orchestra with music director Leon Botstein, whose 2005 concert performance of the opéra-comique was “vibrant and assured” (New York Times). Botstein also leads an all-too-rare concert performance of Saint-Saëns’s grand opera Henry VIII on Sunday, August 19, drawing the 23rd annual Bard Music Festival’s exploration of “Saint-Saëns and His World” – and the entire seven weeks of Bard SummerScape – to a thrilling close.

As Botstein explains,

There was great interest in staging a comic opera at SummerScape – something we have not yet done. And the score for this Chabrier work is one of the unjustly neglected opera scores – truly great music that should be performed. In tandem with our concert performance of Saint-Saëns’s Henry VIII, it gives us a taste of the extraordinary variety and appeal of late 19th-century French opera.

It was eminent conductor-scholar Botstein, who, in concert with the American Symphony Orchestra, first returned to the original text of The King in Spite of Himself’s 1887 premiere, much to the gratified delight of the New York press. The New York Times’s Anthony Tommasini reported:

“Leon Botstein, that tireless champion of the unjustly overlooked, has come to the rescue of an even more neglected Chabrier comedy, Le roi malgré lui (‘The King in Spite of Himself’). … Mr. Botstein led…a vibrant and assured concert performance of this utterly enchanting work from 1887. … From the wondrous opening fanfare for brass and winds, with its wayward phrase structure and playful hints of medieval harmony, the score is glorious. … Mr. Botstein deserves the most credit for bringing us this inexplicably neglected opera.”

As the New York Sun confirmed, “Le roi’s time has come.”

Now Bard is in the happy position of restoring Chabrier’s masterpiece (in its original form) to the opera house in a new, fully-staged production that highlights Botstein’s tried and tested musical direction in a modern stage treatment by Thaddeus Strassberger. The director’s previous SummerScape productions both earned plaudits: Les Huguenots was pronounced “a triumph” (Wall Street Journal) and “a thriller from beginning to end” (Financial Times), while The Distant Sound was named one of New York magazine’s “Top Ten Classical Music Events of 2010.”

In addition to the fully staged opera, SummerScape 2012 also presents a rare concert performance of Saint-Saëns’s grand opera Henry VIII. Today, the composer’s operatic reputation rests solely on Samson and Delilah; even during his lifetime, he was better known for his orchestral and chamber works. Yet Reynaldo Hahn, writing for the composer’s centenary in 1935, argued that a performance of Henry VIII would convince the skeptical that Saint-Saëns was indeed a “man of the theater.” Such revivals, however, are few and far between, especially outside Europe; consequently, Bard’s full orchestral concert presentation should be prized all the more highly. The performance will showcase baritone Jason Howard (Henry VIII); soprano Ellie Dehn, recently described as “a revelation” by the Chicago Sun-Times (Catherine); and Juno Award-winning tenor John Tessier (Don Gomez). They will be supported by the Bard Festival Chorale and James Bagwell, Music Director of the Collegiate Chorale and Bard Music Festival’s Director of Choruses since 2003, as well as by Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra. The performance on August 19 will follow a pre-concert talk by French music specialist Hugh Macdonald, General Editor of the Complete Edition of the Works of Hector Berlioz.

As Musical America remarks, “Bard’s annual opera has become an indispensable part of the summer operatic landscape because the choice of works is invariably inspired and their productions distinctively creative.”

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