“An indispensable part of the summer operatic landscape.”– Musical America on Bard SummerScape
Reviving important but neglected operas is one of the ways the Bard SummerScape festival paints a faithfully-nuanced portrait of each past age, and this year’s exploration of “Saint-Saëns and His World” is no exception. To enrich its immersion in the music of Belle Époque France, with all its trademark opulence and emotional richness, Bard presents the first staged revival of the original 1887 version of The King in Spite of Himself (Le roi malgré lui) by Saint-Saëns’s compatriot and contemporary Emmanuel Chabrier. The production, starring the “lyrical, expressive baritone” (New York Times) of Liam Bonner, will receive a contemporary treatment from Thaddeus Strassberger, director of SummerScape’s previous hit productions of Les Huguenots and The Distant Sound. The opera’s five performances (July 27 & 29; August 1, 3, & 5) involve 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). This summer, Botstein also leads an all-too-rare concert performance of Saint-Saëns’s own grand opera Henry VIII, which will bring the 23rd annual Bard Music Festival – indeed, the entire seven-week Bard SummerScape festival – to a thrilling close on Sunday, August 19.
Bard, Botstein, and the American Symphony Orchestra have long been recognized for their ardent championship of French opera. Besides the Strassberger production of Meyerbeer’s extravaganza Les Huguenots, Botstein has led performances of such rare French fare as Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue and Chausson’s Le roi Arthus (both of which he recorded for the Telarc label), and Lalo’s Le roi d’Ys. Together, SummerScape’s two operatic offerings for 2012 help evoke a dazzlingly creative and colorful era in European history: a Golden Age of promise and possibility that came to an end with the tragedy of World War I.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921), whose long and remarkable career both spanned and helped shape the course of French music from Gounod to Ravel, was a prolific composer and an exceptionally versatile musician. He and Emmanuel Chabrier (1841–94) were well-known to each other (Saint-Saëns was a regular guest at the younger composer’s apartment) and Chabrier was among those who most vociferously championed Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah, thereby contributing to its subsequent phenomenal success. Yet where Saint-Saëns was considered the quintessential polished professional, Chabrier was not held in as high esteem by his peers. Saint-Saëns followed fame as a child prodigy with studies at the Paris Conservatoire; by contrast, Chabrier attended law school and only began composing full-time after almost two decades of white-collar work in the French civil service. As a consequence, his musical training was unorthodox, amounting only to piano lessons with a pair of Spanish refugees and studies with a Polish-Lithuanian violinist. Paradoxically, however, it was Chabrier’s oeuvre that the leading composers of the next generation – Debussy, Ravel, Satie, and Poulenc – would most admire.