Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Daring and original: Purcell's King Arthur re-thought

Purcell: King Arthur - Louise Alder, Ray Fearon, Mhairi Lawson - Academy of Ancient Music (photo Robert Workman)
Purcell: King Arthur - Louise Alder, Ray Fearon, Mhairi Lawson - Academy of Ancient Music (photo Robert Workman)
Purcell King Arthur; Ray Fearon, Louise Alder, Mhairi Lawson, Reginald Mobley, Charles Daniels, Ivan Ludlow, Ashley Riches, Academy of Ancient Music, dir: Daisy Evans, cond: Richard Egarr; Barbican Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 3 2017 Star rating: 5.0
An engaging and thought provoking re-working of Purcell's problem semi-opera

What to do with Purcell and Dryden's King Arthur? The full version involves a team of actors and a team of singers and instrumentalists, not to mention the fact that the spoken text is hardly John Dryden's greatest work. Shorn of spoken text, the music falls in danger of presenting a beautiful but too polite series of lovely fragments. The solution offered by the Academy of Ancient Music and director Daisy Evans (with dramaturg Thomas Larners and lighting director Jake Wiltshire) at the Barbican Hall on Tuesday 3 October 2017 was radical yet engaging. 

Purcell: King Arthur - Ivan Ludlow & chorus - Academy of Ancient Music (photo Robert Workman)
Ivan Ludlow & chorus - Academy of Ancient Music (photo Robert Workman)
The music was re-ordered, the original spoken text and the plot were gone, in their place was actor Ray Fearon speaking a series of texts from contemporary poetry to TS Eliot and Shakespeare, and a company including Louise Alder, Mhairi Lawson, Reginald Mobley, Charles Daniels, Ivan Ludlow, Ashley Riches, and the Academy of Ancient Music and AAM Choir, directed by Richard Egarr, performed King Arthur as a new dramatic piece with contemporary relevance.

The staging, billed as a semi-staging, had a Brechtian directness. Singers and instrumentalists in casual clothes, a pair of boards to announce the location and subject of each scene, and all the singers (soloists and choir) combining into one ensemble which explored themes of identity and the way people tend to identify themselves into tribes. The starting point, of course, was Brexit and we began with Ali Smith's poem 'All across the country' (from Autumn) which gave us a striking starting point after the engaging account of the overture drew us in.

Evans had explained that when she had first looked at King Arthur it had shouted Brexit at her, as the original piece examined ideas of British identity, with wars against foreigners and a triumphant British mask at the end. What was remarkable, was how well the music fitted our modern situations. Evans gave us a series of contemporary scenes with people dividing up and identifying themselves and it was fascinating how the rumbustious of 'Saint George' and 'Harvest Home' fitted a group of men in the pub, whilst 'Woden, first to thee ' became an election hustings. No violence was done to the music or the sung text, it was presented exactly as it has come down to us (the work's survival is partial and not all the music we have may be by Purcell), yet Evans created something very thoughtful. Some scenes were ingenious, the battle music was used for a scene of fighting commuters, and we had scenes of love in a night-club. Because the production used no sets, just a couple of display boards, we had to do a lot of the work ourselves, and this applied to the way the music and spoken text functioned. The result was multi-levelled and startlingly non didactic for such a dialectically organised piece. Daring and original.


Purcell: King Arthur - Academy of Ancient Music (photo Robert Workman)
Purcell: King Arthur - Academy of Ancient Music (photo Robert Workman)
In a way, this was fringe-style opera, the type of lively and direct production concept which you might read about from a company performing in a pub theatre with just a keyboard and a couple of instruments. Yet here we had the Academy of Ancient Music on top form, giving Purcell's music a liveliness and seductive quality all its own. And with a cast that a fringe opera company could only dream about. All the soloists are generalists, rather than period or English baroque specialists, yet all sang with style.

The principal feature of the evening was the sheer engaging quality of the performance, with soloists part of a greater ensemble of individuals who addressed us and engaged with us in dialectical discussion. Louise Alder got the plum and gave us a bleak yet poignant account of 'Fairest Isle', whilst she and Mhairi Lawson combined to make to very seductive sirens indeed. Ashley Riches was a memorable Cold Genius (here the cold people were denizens of a homeless shelter) with Mhairi Lawson a characterful Cupid. Reginald Mobley's sweet toned counter-tenor, Charles Daniels' characterfully incisive tenor, and Ivan Ludlow's flexible baritone all provided strong contributions, as the singers popped up in a variety of roles.

Ray Fearon was terrific in his role as narrator, bewildered participant  and onlooker. Commanding in his Shakespeare speeches which included excerpts from Henry V, and poignant in others such as TS Eliot's We are the hollow men.  The selection of text was admirably wide, Ali Smith, Robinson Jeffers, Shelley, Blake, Rose Macauley, TS Eliot, Shakespeare, Wislawa Szymborska, Charles Bukowski, and Arthur Kramer.

Purcell: King Arthur - Academy of Ancient Music (photo Robert Workman)
Purcell: King Arthur - Academy of Ancient Music (photo Robert Workman)
For all its fine music, I have always found the original version of King Arthur a little unsatisfactory, with the final masque being somewhat a let down and hardly a suitable climax. Here we had something far more thoughtful. Not everyone enjoyed it, it has to be admitted, one or two friends in the audience did not appreciate the concept. It could all have been a bit sober and preachy, but instead the performance from singers and instrumentalists was wonderfully engaging, and the results certainly provided us with an enjoyable and thought provoking evening.

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