King Arthur

By Barnes, Clive | Musical Opinion, September/October 2008 | Go to article overview
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King Arthur


Barnes, Clive, Musical Opinion


Ol' King Arthur was a merry l' som; a merry ol' soul was he. Oops! That was ?G King Cole. ?G King Arthur was the Camelot one who sang / Wonder What The King Ls Doing Tonight in a speech-song as close to Richard Burton's as possible.

Well, I'm trying to put into perspective the peculiar (peculiar odd, not peculiar special) new yet dowdy production of the Henry Purcell/John Dryden masque King Arthur, which I saw (witnessed would be perhaps be the more apt word) on 5 March at the gala performance to open New York City Opera's spring season. King Arthur, by the way, doesn't appear. You are left wondering what he's doing that night!

A co-production with the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Eng-lish National Opera - it has already been seen in London, so pernaps enoug has already been said - although maintaining (I presume) Purcell's music, it doesn't have much to do with original patriotic masque as originally given in 1691. For one thing this Mark Morris staging has dumped Dryden's rhymed couplets of the original libretto, and, in fact, the whole story, which Morris didn't care for, although it considerately keeps Dryden's lyrics to the songs.

But without any kind of context the show falls apart at the seams.

Purcell's masques and semi-operas - he only wrote one proper opera Dido and Aeneas to which Morris has already provided his own dance treatment - are tricky things to stage today. Normally, and sensibly, no one tries.

I can only recall a grandiose production in 1946 of Purcell's The Fairy Queen, based on Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, conducted by Constant Lambert, complete with singers, chorus, actors, and the entire Royal Ballet, launching what is now The Royal Opera, and practically sinking it overnight - so anyone deciding to mount one of these hybrid extravaganzas deserves our sympathy.

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