The Matter of Britain meets French Opera in 'King Arthur'

Scene from King Arthur with mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch. Early in the 20th century, opera lovers in Brussels were asked to name their four, favorite operas. Three of them were hardly surprising. They were operas still popular today: Wagner's Tristan and Isolde and Götterdämmerung, and Debussy's Pelléas. The fourth may well have been unexpected. It was an opera that premiered in Brussels a few years before: Ernest Chausson's King Arthur.

By now, the legend of King Arthur has been around for so long, and has spawned so many plotlines and substories, not to mention sequels and prequels, that there's a literary term -- "Arthurian" -- that's used to describe it all.

There's also a remarkably diverse body of Arthurian music. Henry Purcell wrote a drama called King Arthur back in 1691. In the world of musical theater, Lerner and Loewe based their widely-popular musical Camelot on the Arthur legend. That, in turn, inspired an Arthurian sendup, Spamalot, by the Monty Python gang. Pop music and culture have also hopped on Arthur's bandwagon, with songs such as "Guinevere" by Crosby, Stills and Nash, and with TV shows, including the hit series Merlin from the BBC.

Naturally, there are also Arthurian operas -- though not as many as you might think. Wagner wrote three -- Tristan, Lohengrin, and Parsifal -- though King Arthur himself doesn't feature in any of them. There's also an opera called Merlin, composed to an English libretto by the Spanish master Isaac Albeniz. And there's the opera featured here this week: Le Roi Arthus, by the French composer Ernest Chausson.

Chausson was born in Paris in 1855. He died young, in a cycling accident, at age 44. His family was financially well-off, so Chausson had his choice of professions. His father -- who apparently had a practical bent -- encouraged him to study law, and at age 22 Chausson was sworn in as a barrister. But he never hung out his shingle. Instead, he turned to music, studying with eminent composers including Jules Massenet and Cesar Franck along the way.

But the composer whose music had the greatest influence on Chausson was Richard Wagner. When he was still in his twenties, Chausson visited Munich and Bayreuth, where he heard a number of Wagner's music drams, including Tristan and the Ring cycle.

That influence is clearly heard in Chausson's King Arthur. Both its music and its story are clearly indebted to Tristan, in particular. But allegiance to Wagner was a negative for Chausson when it came to approval from French critics. So, while writing King Arthur, Chausson apparently decided the Wagner influence had to go. With the opera complete, he wrote that by the final act, its music had become "clear and de-Wagnerized."

But had it really? World of Opera gives you a chance to hear for yourself, when host Lisa Simeone presents Chausson's King Arthur in an all-star production from the Bastille Opera in Paris, the composer's hometown. Baritone Thomas Hampson sings the title role, with tenor Roberto Alagna as Lancelot, and mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch as Guinevere, in a performance led by conductor Philippe Jordan.