Purcell’s semi-opera King Arthur today is a popular beast among both opera companies and audiences.
And no wonder: the music is not only highly tuneful and excitingly rendered, but also so loosely connected to Dryden’s tale as to give today’s breed of conceptual directors a largely free ride.
But the First World War trench setting of this interpretation, for all its great merits, ultimately failed to cohere.
The greatest pleasure, for me, was to see how director (and bass) Thomas Guthrie manipulated the music to fit his scheme. Numbers were removed and the order was altered; the Act Four Passacaglia (Purcell’s homage to Lully) was successfully transformed from a spirit temptation to a wedding ritual at the end of Act One. Hither this way, normally an antiphony of sprite calls, became the haunting accompaniment to a shivering, torch lit trek across the battlefield.
And in Act One, I enjoyed the production immensely for its balance of realism and Expressionism. The low lighting helped to disguise just how unsuitable the Cadogan Hall is for staged opera, and the tight, rhythmic choreography of the soldiers and, subsequently, the nurses made sure to interest the eye. To contrast the formalised movement of the men (it made sense, they are soldiers after all), two acrobatic figures opened and closed the act with flowing limbs and sexually suggestive bodily contortions. At one point, their gravity-defying movement continued after the music had ended: I was reminded of an equally captivating moment at the end of Christopher Wheeldon’s Danse grande vitesse, one of the more memorable dance premieres in London last year.
It was in Act Two that I felt the production lost sight of its goal. The structure before the interval had been crisp and dramatic – preparation, journey, fight and recovery – but here the action ground to a shuddering halt. The mail arrived, the men stripped off to have a bath and some beer was served. And the conceits used to introduce the music became, for me, implausible. You say tis love appeared in a predictable dream sequence; the famous Frost aria was delivered by one of the soldiers, coming in from the chill and forgetting for the moment that he was not, in fact, Purcells Cold Genius.
And though placing Fairest Isle at the end of the opera was a thoughtful decision (Purcell and Dryden let the last act wallow in patriotic bombast so, here, the delivery of the aria on a deserted bloody battlefield provided welcome irony), I could not understand why all the characters returned for the orchestral finale to dance a tediously choreographed cabaret line of pas de deux. Either I wasn’t following the narrative or the men had returned from the dead.
For me, there was a lot of character movement and not a lot of character drama. These men were heading to their doom on the battlefield, but I felt little empathy or interest in their plight. The stylised dancing may have excited the eyes, but it kicked the heart out of the door. Though the women suffered intonation problems (the sopranos were Susan Gilmour-Bailey and Lorna James) and the bass placed his voice awkwardly in his throat, the voices combined excellently and filled the hall with ease. Nicholas Mulroy, singing the tenor role from the orchestra, phrased most prettily, though he lacked some bite in his delivery in Purcells snappy solo lines.
And the Orchestra of the Baroque were excellent: their miniature size and meticulous choices of balance and tempi helped to provide truly transparent support. But if the musical performance was undermined by one aspect of the production, it was by the absurdly dim stage lighting that left me struggling throughout to work out what was happening and who was who. Purcells bright, sparky music has rarely been submerged in such gloom, however exciting the staging sometimes was.