Henry Purcell. King Arthur. DVD. Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor and Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt. With Barbara Bonney, Michael Schade, Oliver Widmer, Birgit Remmert, Isabel Rey. Stuttgart, Germany: EuroArts Music International, 2005. 2054508. $44.99.
George Frideric Handel. Teseo. DVD. Lautten Compagney Berlin / Wolfgang Katschner. With Jacek Laszczkowski, Sharon Rostrof-Zamir, Maria Riccarda Wesseling, Martin Wölfel, Mariam Meyer, Thomas Diestler. Leipzig, Germany: Arthaus Musik, 2004. 100 709. $34.99.
I can't help wondering what composers such as Handel and Purcell would make of our recent fascination with the musical theater of the 17th and 18th centuries. Generations came and went without any performances of these works, most of which were intended for performance at a certain time in a specific place with no thought of revival. Should another city or royal court express an interest in a second production, it was not uncommon for the composer to overhaul the piece for a different cast of singers and the tastes of the local populace. In these days, when "authenticity" is the operative word, how does one decide what is "authentic"? We can select a specific musical text from the various editions: the Vienna edition of Gluck's Alceste, for example, instead of his vastly altered version for Paris, but what about the staging? Should we be "musicologically correct" and attempt a recreation of what we think 18th century audiences saw, or should we remove these works from the museum and present them in a way which can speak more readily to a contemporary audience? A good stage director and design team can make either approach work-or not, as the case may be.
With the exception of Dido and Aeneas, the theatrical works of Henry Purcell are seldom encountered except as concert works. His so-called "semi-operas" were what we might consider plays with incidental music except that characters from the play are called upon to sing on occasion. The difficulty in finding singing actors who can play Restoration drama and negotiate Purcell's florid vocal lines has relegated these large scale works to the pages of the history books and concert performances of the music only.
In 2004, the Salzburg Festival attempted to change this. Employing a German translation based on John Dryden's original text, which was adapted further by stage director Jürgen Flimm and conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the production uses stage actors and singers (often doubling one another in identical costumes) to present this pageant-like work and make it accessible to a modern audience. There is no attempt to recreate a period production; instead we see warring Saxons and Britons from all historical eras plus quite a bit of extravagant silliness which would not be out of place in a British pantomime. Presented in Salzburg's cavernous Felsenreitschule, the production employs 21st century stage and lighting techniques to bring this forgotten work to life, but be forewarned: it is the sort of production which might be dismissed by more conservative viewers as Eurotrash.
Musically, the production is in very strong hands. Harnoncourt is one of the gurus of the period instrument movement, and while Purcell's music has never figured largely in his repertoire, he knows what to do with it and elicits first rate performances from his orchestra and soloists, who include Barbara Bonney and Michael Shade, singing in the original English. Of the actors and the spoken dialogue, I suspect that much is lost if one is not fluent in German. …