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Bard SummerScape 2012 Revives Two Neglected Operas of Belle Époque France: Chabrier’s The King In Spite of Himself (July 27-Aug 5) & Saint-Saëns’s Henry VIII (Aug 19)

“An indispensable part of the summer operatic landscape.”

Musical America on Bard SummerScape

Mark Primoff
 Image Credit: Jules Chéret, 1887. Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris.

Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. – 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.


Although today he is remembered primarily for two orchestral works, España and Joyeuse marche, Chabrier also left an important body of operas, including the rarely performed The King in Spite of Himself (Le roi malgré lui, 1887). Loosely based on history – by way of popular historical novelist Alexandre Dumas – the opera tells the story of Henri de Valois, a 16th-century noble named King of Poland despite pining for his native France. The opera’s performance history was hardly more straightforward than its elaborate comic plot; its opening run was cut short prematurely when the Opéra-Comique’s theater was ravaged by fire on the fourth night. Such revivals as have since been undertaken are usually on the concert platform rather than in the opera house, and make use of later, revised versions of the work. Yet the opera balances farce and romance with elegant economy, and boasts a score so rich and original that Ravel claimed its premiere “changed the course of French harmony.” Likewise, modern critics have come to recognize that, in the words of Pulitzer Prize-winner Harold C. Schonberg, “Chabrier’s masterpiece is Le roi malgré lui, a lighthearted work of extraordinary sophistication. It should be revived.


It was Leon Botstein who, in concert with the American Symphony Orchestra, first returned to the text of the 1887 premiere, 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,


“Judging from [this] spirited performance and the audience’s roar of delight at the conclusion, Le roi’s time has come. Conductor Leon Botstein drew stunning moments of beauty from his instrumentalists. … Mr. Botstein’s obvious passion for Le roi malgré lui paid off.”


Now SummerScape is in the happy position of restoring Chabrier’s masterpiece in its original form to the opera house in a new, fully-staged production, highlighting Botstein’s tried and tested musical direction in a modern treatment by Thaddeus Strassberger, whose previous SummerScape opera productions rank among Bard’s undisputed success stories. Of his way with Meyerbeer in 2009, the Wall Street Journal noted: “Mr. Strassberger directed intimate moments and crowd scenes with equal skill, making smooth segues from the personal into the political. … A triumph,” and the Financial Times declared: “Les Huguenots in Bard’s staging is a thriller from beginning to end. …Five Stars.” Similarly, of SummerScape’s 2010 presentation of Schreker’s The Distant Sound, the Wall Street Journal observed: “Strassberger’s engrossing production reflected the experimental nature of the opera by seamlessly integrating period films and giving the show a modernist, distancing aura,” while New York magazine named it one of the “Top Ten Classical Music Events of 2010.”


A coproduction with Ireland’s Wexford Festival Opera (which annually hosts one of the world’s finest opera showcases), the new staging stars baritone Liam Bonner, who made his SummerScape debut in the U.S. premiere of Kurt Weill’s Royal Palace in 2010, and who extended his string of French repertory successes with the title role in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at Opera Theatre of St. Louis last season. In Chabrier’s title role, Bonner leads a strong cast, with tenor Michele Angelini, “bursting with vocal promise” (Denver Post) as Henri’s friend Nangis; and, as slave girl and love interest Minka, Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman, one of the “rising stars” of Chicago’s Lyric Opera. Set design is courtesy of Barrymore Award-winner Kevin Knight, whose international credits include the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; with costumes by Mattie Ullrich, who previously teamed up with Bard for Les Huguenots, and whose “canny costuming deserves unqualified praise” (New York magazine). The production runs for five performances (July 27 & 29; August 1, 3, & 5), with an Opera Talk from Leon Botstein before the show on Sunday, July 29 at 1:00pm, free and open to the public. As director Thaddeus Strassberger remarks:


“Bard SummerScape’s bucolic setting allows everyone involved with the opera production really to focus on doing just one thing and doing it well, which is important in the Fisher Center because everything gets seen on that stage. Every look, every movement: it all reads in the house.”


This season, in addition to a fully staged opera, SummerScape 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 occupied an unusual position in French music, being better-known for his orchestral and chamber works. Yet his output contains a further eleven operas, including Henry VIII, which dates from 1881-82. According to Gounod, who published an entire pamphlet extolling the work, it “had earned the most signal honor for French art,” and indeed, Henry VIII helped win Saint-Saëns’s promotion to Officier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1884. It remained in the Paris Opéra repertory until 1919 – after a total of 87 performances – and traveled to Frankfurt, Milan, Moscow, London, Antwerp, Prague, and Monte Carlo besides. 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, the full orchestral concert performance with which the Bard Music Festival concludes its 23rd season should be prized all the more highly.


The performance will showcase soprano Ellie Dehn, recently described as “a revelation” (Chicago Sun-Times); the “vibrant mezzo-soprano and generous presence” (New York magazine) of mezzo-soprano Jennifer Holloway; and Juno Award-winning tenor John Tessier, supported by the Bard Festival Chorale with James Bagwell, Music Director of the Collegiate Chorale and Bard Music Festival’s Director of Choruses since 2003. With the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein, the presentation 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.


Since the opening of the Fisher Center at Bard, Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra have been responsible for championing and restoring to the stage a growing number of important but long-neglected operas. All of these presentations and their remarkable stagings have been warmly received by audiences, not least last season’s Die Liebe der Danae (“The Love of Danae,” 1940) by Richard Strauss, which inspired a spate of positive press. Operavore, the opera blog of WQXR, observed, “Simply put: This updating works. … Musically, Leon Botstein also made a significant case for the work.” The New York Times agreed:


“In a beautiful performance…the conductor and scholar Leon Botstein and his American Symphony Orchestra showed that most everything you’ve heard about Danae is wrong. … An opera needs to be able to catch fire onstage, and in the SummerScape production, directed with imagination and emotional nuance…, Danae certainly does. … Exhilarating and moving, Danae has found its moment.”


Musical America reiterated: “Die Liebe der Danae is much too good an opera to continue a life of semi-obscurity, and we need to see it more often. With luck, Bard’s thoughtful production will inspire others to follow suit.” In short, SummerScape’s revival proved “a triumph, not least for Botstein, who achieved his finest operatic podium results to date” (Opera News).


Illustrating the scope and originality of the festival’s programming, a list of Bard’s previous operatic offerings follows below:


2011: Strauss – Die Liebe der Danae (first fully-staged New York production)

2010: Schreker – The Distant Sound

2009: Meyerbeer – Les Huguenots

2008: Szymanowski – King Roger; Harnasie (double-bill)

2007: Zemlinsky – Der Zwerg; Eine florentinische Tragödie (first U.S. double-bill production)

2006: Schumann – Genoveva (first U.S. professional production)

2005: Blitzstein – Regina

2004: Shostakovich – The Nose (first east-coast professional production)

2003: Janáček – Osud (first U.S. staged production)


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.”




Opera at Bard SummerScape 2012


Emmanuel Chabrier (1841–94)

The King in Spite of Himself (“Le roi malgré lui”, 1887)

Sung in French, with English supertitles


American Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by Leon Botstein, music director

Directed by Thaddeus Strassberger

Set Design by Kevin Knight


Henri: Liam Bonner

Nangis: Michele Angelini

Minka: Andriana Chuchman

Alexina: Nathalie Paulin

Fritelli: Frédéric Gonçalvés

Laski: Jeffrey Mattsey

Basile: Jason Ferrante


Sosnoff Theater

July 27* and August 3 at 7:00pm

July 29* and August 1 and 5* at 3:00pm

Tickets: $30, $60, $70, $90


Opera Talk with Leon Botstein

July 29 at 1:00pm

Free and open to the public


Special support for The King in Spite of Himself is provided by Emily H. Fisher and John Alexander.

The Opera Talk is presented in memory of Sylvia Redlick Green.



Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Henry VIII (1882-82)

Libretto: Léonce Détroyat and Armand Silvestre


American Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by Leon Botstein, music director

Bard Festival Chorale

Conducted by James Bagwell, choral director


Ellie Dehn, soprano

Jennifer Holloway, mezzo-soprano

John Tessier, tenor

And others


Sosnoff Theater

August 19 at 4:30pm*

Tickets: $30, $50, $60, $75


Pre-concert Talk with Hugh Macdonald

August 19 at 3:30pm

Free and open to the public


Entitled “Out of the Shadow of Samson and Delilah: Saint-Saëns’s Other Grand Opera,” this concert represents the final program of the 23rd annual Bard Music Festival.


* Round-trip transportation from Manhattan to Bard is available for this performance. The round-trip fare is $30 and reservations are required.

† Round-trip shuttle between the MetroNorth train station in Poughkeepsie and Bard is available for this performance. The round-trip fare is $20 and reservations are required. Shuttle service is available for all performances of the opera.



SummerScape 2012: other key performance dates by genre



Bard Music Festival, Weekend One: “Saint-Saëns and His World: Paris and the Culture of Cosmopolitanism” (August 10–12)

Bard Music Festival, Weekend Two: “Saint-Saëns and His World: Confronting Modernism” (August 17–19)


Round-trip coach transportation from Manhattan to Bard is available on August 10, 12, 17, and 19, for particular Sosnoff Theater performances. Round-trip shuttle transportation between the MetroNorth train station in Poughkeepsie and Bard is also available for some of the performances. A fare will be charged and reservations are required for coach and shuttle transportation. Check the website for schedules and details.



Molière: The Imaginary Invalid

LUMA Theater

July 13*, 14+, 19, 20, and 21† at 8:00pm

July 14, 15*, 18, 21, and 22* at 3:00pm

Tickets: $45



Compagnie Fêtes galantes

July 6* and 7† at 8:00pm

July 8* at 3:00pm

Sosnoff Theater

Tickets: $25, $40, $45, $55


* Round-trip transportation from Manhattan to Bard is available for this performance. The round-trip fare is $30 and reservations are required.

† Round-trip shuttle between the MetroNorth train station in Poughkeepsie and Bard is available for this performance. The round-trip fare is $20 and reservations are required.

+SummerScape Gala Benefit dinner and post-performance party.



“France and the Colonial Imagination”

Thursdays and Sundays, July 12 – August 12 at 2:00pm or 7:00pm

Ottaway Film Center

Tickets: $8



Cabaret, Family Fare, and SpiegelClub

Cabaret $25; Family Fare $15 ($5 for child under 18); SpiegelClub $5



Bard SummerScape Ticket Information


For tickets and further information on all SummerScape events, call the Fisher Center box office at 845-758-7900 or visit


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This event was last updated on 01-09-2013