06/26/2006 - - 8 July 2006
Henry Purcell: King Arthur
Andrew Foster-Williams (baritone), William Berger (baritone), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), James Gilchrist (tenor), Gillian Keith (soprano), Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Mhairi Lawson (soprano)
Jane Glover (conductor), Mark Morris (director/choreographer)
Mark Morris Dance Group, ENO Orchestra and Chorus
Mention Mark Morris' production of Handel's L'Allegro, seen at the Coliseum in 1997 and again in 2000, and many people will break into a silly grin. Handel's setting of Milton's academic poem about the mirthful and melancholy (or reflective) character is delightful in itself, and Morris found the essential humanity in the work and gave it to his highly skilled company as a series of pictorial jokes and supremely expressive, deceptively simple, formal dances. His ultra-dramatic Dido and ultra-fluffy, but still uplifting, Five Saints in Three Acts also went down well. So his production of Purcell's King Arthur is faced with high expectations.
While the other works Morris has brought to the ENO have been bedded down in other venues first and based on complete works, King Arthur is new, developed specifically for the ENO's crack team of period singers, and based on the musical elements extracted from Purcell and Dryden's four-hour English opera. There have been several attempts to stage the music in The Fairy Queen as a standalone piece of music theatre, including a popular one at the ENO, or, with historical accuracy, as a series of standalone masques linked by the themes of the opera. But the musical sections in King Arthur, although they do not assign music to the main characters, do have some of the minor characters singing and advance the action somewhat. For example, "Hither this way" is a chase across a marshland in which the good spirit Philidel tries to lead Arthur in pursuit of his enemy Oswald and save him from evil Will o'the Wisps. It's drama to some extent as well as theatre.
And there's a further problem: Dryden's King Arthur was originally written to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the restoration of Charles II, and it is loaded with the myth of Arthur as the king who saved Britain from invaders by uniting warring British peoples against the foreign enemy. It is enthusiastic about Englishness, Britishness and the embryonic British Empire in a way that modern audiences might well find problematic, even though in the musical sections at least it isn't rude about Catholics or the Scots (Dryden was Catholic) and has a dig about the British weather. With the football on, it's all slightly uncomfortable.
So it's probably not surprising that Morris' King Arthur isn't as totally, euphorically complete as L'Allegro. But it is still about as enjoyable a show as you will see in London this year, and Purcell's music is delightfully performed. Morris, perhaps trying to defuse the potential aggression in the patriotic sections, starts the performance in a rehearsal room where a mixture of singers and dancers greet each other and seem to try out the first number, a pre-battle sacrifice and carouse, with increasing confidence as the dance group enact the effects of war and plunder. The rest is treated similarly as a great game. The programme says that "the time is the present and the performers are themselves", which perhaps makes the choice of two Scottish singers significant, although Mhairi Lawson is in any case a natural for a drag-queen Thatcher impersonation of Britannia. The final act, which includes advice to Eat British Fish and Wear British Wool as well as "Fairest Isle", as sung by Lawson a not entirely doomed attempt to make patriotism erotic, is in effect a village fete with cute but improvised looking red, white and blue costumes, and the singers as toffs in evening dress. Even here, an exquisitely elegant ballerina Britannia is still in rehearsal dress, with legwarmers.
In between, the mood moves from military posturing through pastoral and fairy tale to general hilarity, with frequent changes of dressing-up-box costumes. The thread through it all seems to be simply the dance, and in particular the circle dance. The warriors in the first act do battle in a circle, perhaps an allusion to a tradition of a dance around the walls of Troy -- Dryden's play makes much of Arthur's descent from Brutus, a particularly lost son of Priam, and so from Venus, who explicitly dominates the opera. The shepherds seems to form a circle before, blessed by their freedom from war, they get down to it. And there is a breathtakingly beautiful and quite possibly authentic maypole dance for the Chaconne. There are plenty of other good jokes, included the frozen Genius of the Isle summoned by Cupid from a fridge, and bathing-beauty nixies with extra dancers' legs waving from a silvery curtain, a scene that with a third Sieberntochter would be at home in Rheingold.
The singers and orchestra under Jane Glover gave a performance that was worth hearing even some those who hated "modern dance" enough to keep their eyes closed throughout. (There may have been some.) Gillian Keith was an amusing dippy sprite, staggering through the marsh in high heels, and a very naughty nixy. The other nixy, Elizabeth Watts, has the makings of a glorious big soprano. Iestyn Davies was a striking newcomer to the house, singing with a lovely strong and apparently effortless countertenor. Andrew Foster-Williams was comically grotesque as the frozen genius, and William Berger was appropriately hearty throughout. Both sang magnificently, although James Gilchrist was the voice of the evening. Mhairi Lawson dominated as Cupid-Britannia. At the end of the evening, Mark Morris left the stage arm-in-arm with her, waving a flag of St George. England may not have won the World Cup, but there's still Purcell.