Sunday 9 July 2006

King Arthur

Mark Morris's production of King Arthur on Friday, at ENO was more enjoyable than some reviews had led me to believe but also less than it might have been.

The set was very plaing, just consisting of a few drop curtains, the odd platform, free-standing doors and a selection of props. It opened with the cast coming in and sitting in a circle. Some had partial costumes as if rehearsing for King Arthur. Whilst they sang the solos in the opening choruses to Woden, the dancers filed past as if creating a processing of warriors, but in rehearsal costume. The chorus were in the pit.

Each scene was staged like this, the dancers in rehearsal costumes, the singers in a variety of wigs and partial costumes. Each episode was staged appropriately but there was no dramatic linkage between them, no connective tissue. It was almost as it we were watching a the movements of a ballet where the linkage between movements was the dance itself. This was emphasised by the banishing of the chorus to the pit.

This was a shame, because in the production of Rameau's Les Paladins which came to the Barbican, dance was to the fore and the chorus was integrated with the dancers. I was not too keen on the production of Les Paladins but far prefer their method to Mark Morris's banishment of the chorus.

The treatment of the chorus is understandable, perhaps, because the production is a co-production between ENO, New York City Opera and others so must be mountable in a variety of different companies. Economics probably mean that it is impossible to do the work to integrate each different opera chorus into the production.

The result, though billed as opera and organised by ENO, was to make it seem as if we were watching a dance work which happened to have singers in it as well.

This was a great shame because an opportunity was missed. Mark Morris's choreography can at times seem obvious and trite but there were moments in King Arthur where he matched Purcell's rhythms beautifully. In the long chorus about lovers for instance, the singers (in a variety of deshabille) were on a platform and turned the the audience in groups as the dancers moved around them. The result was satisfying and rather moving. I began to wish that someone had had the guts (and the money) to stage the semi-opera properly with suitable regard for the dramatic scene changes necessary with Mark Morris doing the movement. The result could have been stunning rather than just satisfying.

In the Cold-Genius section, Andrew Foster-Williams sang from inside a fridge freezer, which was an amusing wheeze. My main complaint was the Foster-Williams was encouraged to force his tone in the opening, cold bits, which affected his tuning and destroyed the sense of line in Purcell's music.

For the final section of the work, after the plot has finished and the celebrations start, where Purcell and Dryden create a celebration of England, Morris (and costume designer Issac Misrahi) place the set pieces in the context of a circus. I think this was just a decision, just a way of presenting the disparate elements but it did contain an element of send-up. The dancerscostumes themselves were rather imaginative and had an element of nostalgia. For Fairest Isle Morris calmed down and had Mhairi Lawson just sitting on a plaform in front of a tree, the result looked very Jackanory! For the final, glorious Chaconne, Morris again hit on the perfect complement (and compliment) to Purcell's music and produced a bold and complex Maypole dance.

The singing was uniformly excellent and the cast, especially James Gilchrist, had to put up with some pretty odd wigs and costumes. Gilchrist had a wonderful knack of making his tenor ring round the Coliseum without it ever seeming forced; the perfect way to sing Purcell in this big house. The other stand-out singers was Mhairi Lawson who managed to project perfect Purcell singing whilst chaos went on around her; though there were moments when her smile seemed to become rather too fixed.

Jane Glover was in charge in the pit and musically this was a superb evening. Chorus, Orchestra and Soloists gave us a fine version of Purcell's music, if you closed your eyes you could be in heaven. It was only Dryden who was turning in his grave.

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