Edoard Lalo’s epic opera on a Breton myth – “Le Roi d”Ys” – has been missing from the core operatic repertory for decades.
In America, it is basically unknown. Those opera-goers who think of it at all likely have recordings of Mylio’s enchanting aria Vainement, ma bien-aimée, and perhaps of the massive overture.
There has not been a performance of the opera at the New York Metropolitan for 92 seasons (although Lincoln Center did host an American Symphony Orchestra concert version of it under Leon Botstein in 2008). Not a note of it has ever been performed by the San Francisco Opera in its history.
Yet, its fortunes have been reviving in the South of France, In 2007 at the Capitole de Toulouse, the formidable team of producer Nicolas Joel and set designer Ezio Frigerio created a new production, which proved a successful and popular revival of the work.
Also in 2007, a separate production, created by French actor Jean-Louis Pichon, was created for the Opéra Théâtre Saint-Étienne, a co-production that traveled the next year to Belgium’s Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège.
[Below: Jean-Louis Pichon; edited image of a Claude Essertel photograph for leprogres.fr.]
It is Pichon’s production that was the basis for the performances in Marseille.
The Opera’s Storyline
The opera is about two daughters of the King of Ys, a Breton town that was built so close to the sea that mechanical defenses (sluice gates) were constructed to keep the seawaters from engulfing the land. In addition to these defenses the city is also protected by its patron Saint Corentin.
At the opera’s beginning the townspeople of Ys are celebrating the Christmastide nuptials of the King’s eldest daughter Margared (Béatrice Uria-Monzon) to Karnak (Philippe Rouillon), the leader of the armies of the former enemy of Ys.
[Below: Karnak (Philippe Rouillon, in red uniform, holding head-dress; appears before the King of Ys (Nicolas Courjal, right) for his promised marriage to Margared (Béatrice Uria-Monzon, next to King, partially hidden); edited image, based on a Christian Dresse photograph, courtesy of the Opera de Marseille.]
Margared tells Rozenn (Inva Mula), that she loves a young soldier, Mylio (Florian Laconi), who had sailed off to a distant land (who is the same man with whom Rozenn is in love).
Mylio, whom we learn has escaped from being held captive, pledges his love to Rozenn.
[Below: Mylio (Florian Laconi, right) pledges his love to Rozenn (Inva Mula, left); edited image, based on a Christian Dresse photograph, courtesy of the Opera National de Marseille.]
Learning of Mylio’s return, Margared calls off her wedding to a shocked Karnak, who pledges the destruction of Ys. Mylio takes on the defense of Ys.
[Below: flags are planted in the battle to save Ys; resized image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Opera de Marseille.]
Having defeated Karnak, Mylio is promised Rozenn’s hand, which enrages Margared.
[Below: Margared (Béatrice Uria-Monzon, right) expresses her rage to her sister Rozenn (Inva Mula, left); edited image, based on a Christian Dresse photograph, courtesy of the Opera de Marseille.]
She offers to help Karnak obtain revenge and tells him how to flood the city by destroying the sluice gates. In her anger she taunts the statue of Saint Corentin, who appears in person to warn her to repent her actions.
Mylio and Rozenn are married, The King is suspicious of Margared’s absence from the wedding party, but, overheard by Margared, Rozenn assures her of Margared’s loyalty. Karnak opens the sluice gates, but is killed by Mylio, but not in time to save the inn0ocent people of Ys.
Margared reveals that it was she who gave the idea to Karnak, and, by sacrificing herself to the sea, would save the city. Her leap into the sea is welcomed by Saint Corentin who, to the reverential acclaim of the populace, causes the waves to subside.
Béatrice Uria-Monzon’s Margared
The French mezzo-soprano Béatrice Uria-Monzon, who has built her career on the great French and Italian mezzo roles, proved mesmerizing in this challenging role – the dominant presence in this opera.
The role requires a wide range with the strength in the lower register one expects of a contralto. Uria-Monzon was greeted with a sizable ovation at opera’s end.
Florian Laconi’s Mylio and Inva Mula’s Rozenn
French lyric tenor Florian Laconi paired nicely with Albanian soprano Inva Mula (the only member of the cast whom I had seen previously – see Vargas Shines Bright in Stellar S. F. “L’Elisir d’Amore” – November 9, 2008.)
Both are appealing characters, each with significant arias and a charming duet.
Philippe Rouillon’s Karnak, Nicolas Courjal’s King of Ys, and other cast members
Karnak is an evil presence, fully intending to murder thousands of innocent persons, even if he is goaded into this act of revenge by the spiteful Margared.
Philippe Rouillon’s sonorous baritone helped establish Karnak as an authoritative villain.
[Below: the King of Ys (Nicolas Courjal, front, left) takes the hand of his younger daughter, Rozenn (Inva Mula, front, right); edited image, based on a Christian Dresse photograph, courtesy of the Opera de Marseille.]
Nicolas Courjal as the King of Ys (one of the smaller roles in opera for a title character) made a strong impression, and was particularly effective in a trio with his two daughters.
The uniformly excellent cast was rounded out by by Patrick Delcour as Saint Corentin who, after the self-sacrifice he demands of Margared, saves the day.
Marc Scoffoni plays Jahel, an expositional character who alerts us to the fact that Corentin is an important saint that the people of Ys appropriately revere.
Sets and Costumes
Set designer Alexandre Heyraud and costume designer Frédéric Pineau created a visually impressive scenic presentation. The rocky coast of Brittany was represented by craggy outcrops, with structure that implied the realms of church and state.
The costumes were those of the early decades of the Third Republic, coincident with the dozen or so years between the opera’s composition in 1875 and its first performances in 1888.
This is a production that can fit a smaller stage, yet brilliantly utilizes a rain-making machine to reinforce the impression of the impending flooding of the land of Ys.
Los Angeles born conductor Lawrence Foster, now 73, is obviously esteemed by both the Marseille audience and the Marseille Opera Orchestra, both of whom warmly applauded him.
[Below: Conductor Lawrence Foster; resized image of a publicity photograph.]
One of the current champions of the late 19th century French music, Foster and the Marseille Opera Orchestra demonstrated both the power and elegance of Lalo’s orchestration and vocal writing.
The Marseille Opera Chorus’ performance was noteworthy throughout the evening.
Thoughts on 19th Century Epic Myth Operas
One of the arguments for the decline in the number of performances of this opera in the 20th century, was that the 20th century did not share the late 19th century’s taste for epic myths.
Lack of enthusiasm for epic myth does not seem to be a problem in the 21st century, in which HBO’s Game of Thrones is a cultural phenomenon and blockbuster movies such as those starring a comic book super-hero named Thor are economic power houses.
There are Breton characters (Tristan and Kurwenal) in a well-known German opera and even a Breton character in Italian opera (the slave Uldino in Verdi’s “Attila”). It seems appropriate that a French opera based on an epic Breton myth seems to be working its way back into the performance repertory.
Within the first ten days of May I was to see three operas based on epic myths – Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung” in Geneva, Rossini’s “Guglielmo Tell” in Torino and Lalo’s “Roi d’Ys” in Marseille. The first two operas clocked in respectively at five and a half hours and at four and a half hours, but Lalo’s ran just over two hours and a quarter.
Yet, with the fast pace, lively music and fantastic elements of “Roi d’Ys”, one has the sense of spending a full night at the opera, without it going on too long.
I recommend the production, and cast at the Opera de Marseille with enthusiasm.