Opera Preview ... Le Rois Malgre Lui or The King in Spite of Himself

A French farce at Bard’s Summerscape previewed by Steven Jude Tietjen opens July 27

This July, Bard SummerScape will bring the sophistication and wit of French opéra-comique to the shores of the Hudson with the first stage revival of the 1887 version of Emmanuel Chabrier’s Le Roi malgré lui or The King in Spite of Himself since the beginning of the twentieth century. Unlike traditional grand opera in which the dramatic action is entirely sung, in French opéra-comique, musical scenes are woven together with spoken dialogue, similar to classic American musical comedies. For most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the opéras-comiques were the popular entertainment of the day, tackling contemporary social and political issues with humor, satire, and the requisite love story. In keeping with the populist origins of opéra-comique, Bard SummerScape will present The King in Spite of Himself with the original French dialogue and with English supertitles.


The King in Spite of Himself is based on the true story of Prince Henri de Valois, later King Henri III of France, who was pressured by his mother, the original tiger mom, Catherine de Medici, to accept the Polish crown. In the operetta, Henri is miserable as the King of Poland and, disguised as his friend Count Nangis, joins in the conspiracy to overthrow…himself. Caught up in the conspiracy are the lovers Nangis (later disguised as Henri) and Minka, a Polish serf. Through a series of disguises, mistaken identities, and confessions of undying love, Henri is almost home in his beloved France when he is recognized and forced back to Krakow to finish his reign as the reluctant King of Poland.


The libretto, written by Emile de Najac and Paul Burani, is full of complex, fast-paced and often absurd comedic devices. Chabrier worked closely with the librettists to ensure the clarity of the comedic situations, often adding his own cuts and alterations. In 1929, French actor, director and librettist Albert Carré drastically revised the libretto. While this revision is now the most commonly performed, Bard SummerScape’s production will use the original 1887 libretto. With his incomparable wit and singular musical style, Chabrier gives each character an interesting, three-dimensional life. Praised by famous French composer Maurice Ravel for its inventive and influential use of new harmonies, the brilliance of the work is in Chabrier’s seamless fusion of comic, romantic, and dramatic music; its unexpected shifts in style, blending café music and traditional arias with Chabrier’s forward-thinking and kaleidoscopic use of harmony, enliven the libretto into a fast-paced and engaging evening full of comedy, romance, and tongue-in-cheek commentary. 


Bard Summerscape’s 2012 production of The King in Spite of Himself is part of renewed interest in the stage works of Chabrier. A 2004 Opéra de Lyon production of Le Roi malgré lui was revived in 2009 at the Paris Opéra-Comique, where it was first premiered in 1887. Chabrier’s earlier comic opera, L’Étoile, has also enjoyed a lively renaissance, initiated by the premiere of Mark Lamos’ production at the nearby Glimmerglass Festival in 2001. The Glimmerglass production of L’Étoile has brought the whimsy, wit, and wonder of Chabrier’s music to the audiences of Austin Lyric Opera (2010), Cincinnati Opera (2006), L’Opera de Montreal (2005), and New York City Opera (2002 and 2010).


The King in Spite of Himself, restored to its original 1887 version, is directed by Thaddeus Strassberger who returns to Bard SummerScape after directing acclaimed productions of Les Huguenots (2009) and The Distant Sound (2010.) The production runs for five performances between July 27 and August 5.


Steven Jude Tietjen works in the Dramaturgy Department of The Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York.