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They Who Steal Our Purcell…

New York
New York City Opera, Lincoln Center
03/05/2008 -  and March 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 15.
Henry Purcell: King Arthur
Daniel Mobbs, Alexander Tall (Baritones), Iestyn Davies (Countertenor), Steven Sanders (Tenor), Sarah Jane McMahon, Heidi Stober, Mhairi Lawson (Sopranos)
New York Opera Chorus, New York Opera Orchestra with augmented Baroque consort, Jane Glover (Conductor)
The Mark Morris Dancers, Mark Morris (Artistic Director, and Choreographer), Adrianne Lobel (Scenic Designer), Issac Mizrahi (Costume Designer), James E. Ingalls (Lighting Designer)

“Who steals my Purcell steals trash,” Iago would say if he were played by the equally wicked Mark Morris. For Morris did indeed steal the Purcell away from Purcell in the production of King Arthur which opened the New York City Opera last night.

That would have caused pain in most directors, but Morris obviously felt no regrets. “I chose to discard the spoken text (which I don’t like)”, he said. Alas, that meant throwing out my favorite Dryden line of kitsch: “My name is Osmond, and my business Love”

Morris also scorns Baroque theatrical devices: “I don’t do that,” he said. Too bad, since the machinery of King Arthur includes enchanted forests, magic rituals, sacrifices, and great battles.

Finally, Morris disdains Dryden’s multiple themes here—jingoism, courage, mystery, history, forgiveness—and explains with adolescent simplicity that it is about “love.”

The reality of this most unreal “Dramatic Opera” is that if Purcell’s Dido and Aneas is the Hope Diamond, King Arthur is a bijouterie of trinkets and flimflam, pasties and crown jewels, fake diadems and even a few diamonds in the rough. Purcell invented new theatrical ideas the way Shakespeare invented new words, so this, neither drama nor opera, was filled with bucolic tenderness, silliness and some extraordinary music.

Fortunately, the music was mainly retained. The estimable Jane Glover led a mainly Early Baroque consort of old keyboards, guitars, recorders and a few trumpets, as well as the splendid New York City Opera Chorus, which was hidden away in the orchestra pit. Some pieces—like the “Chatter Song” with Purcell’s cryptic signs above the staff—were eliminated, but mainly this was good, beautiful Purcell, beautifully done.

Which leaves Mark Morris and his creation. It takes much suspension of disbelief to get into the un-Baroque spirit of the thing. Instead of the medieval battlefields of Olde England, we have a theatre, and a kind of rehearsal, with the singers staring in ordinary street clothes. The spotlights are visible, the curtains are ramshackle. The drama is completely eliminated, and what remains is a series of masques with Mark Morris’s choreography, some amazing singing, and a few cryptic elements of sets.

While the chorus performs in the pit, the singers on stage give their own performances of Purcell, in more or less the order of the original opera (eliminating any speaking). Behind, in front, around and sometimes with the singers, the Mark Morris Dancers perform which is basically a ballet of the opera.

The bareness of the modern dance with the 1691 music was initially disconcerting, of course. But within a few minutes, one stopped hoping for anything approaching Baroque, and simply went along with it. And why not? Those 19-odd dancers are lithe, long-limbed, with bodies that seemed to do anything. And where that “anything” was sometimes “nothing”, there were some moments of absolute brilliance.
Some of it—like a dance around a series of mirrors and cupboards—was simply virtuosic. But Morris knows his Baroque dances too, and his dancers could be graceful here as they are athletic. One scenes ends in total orgy—sodomy, writhing, plain old clothes-on missionary positions. But so cool are these dancers that it is anything but prurient. The famous “frost scene” has a gentleman coming out of an antique refrigerator, complete with brolly and hat, being sprinkled with prop snow. I thought it looked more weird than effective.

Best was the final masque when costume designer Issac Mizrahi turned transformed the dancers into a menagerie, including a flamingo and the most graceful giraffe.

Admittedly, I was not altogether entranced by the concept, though the execution was faultless. I was totally mesmerized by the singing. In fact, Mhairi Lawson, a specialist in Baroque opera, had such a pure vocal style that I would go anywhere to hear her again. The men (who changed costumes and roles) were equally fine. And certainly authentic. If Morris had tried to finagle the music, Ms. Glover would obviously have put her foot (and her baton) down.

The spoof continued to the patriotic finale, complete with Chinese ribbons and paper airplanes, and the chorus extolling the economic future of 18th Century England. It was never heavy, certainly never heavy-handed, or heavy-footed. And for those who either were unaware of or not in love with Purcell’s very singular concert. The Purcell-Dryden/Morris idea possessed grace, imagination, and frequently, even shadows of Baroque originality.

Harry Rolnick



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