New York City Opera – King Arthur

King Arthur – Semi-opera in five acts to a libretto by John Dryden [sung in English with English supertitles]

Soprano I – Mhairi Lawson
Soprano II – Sarah Jane McMahon
Soprano III – Heidi Stober
Countertenor – Iestyn Davies
Tenor – Steven Sanders
Baritone I – Scott Guinn
Baritone II – Alexander Tall

New York City Opera Chorus & Orchestra
Jane Glover

Mark Morris – Director & Choreographer
Adrianne Lobel – Set Designer
Isaac Mizrahi – Costume Designer
James F. Ingalls – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 7 March, 2008
Venue: New York State Theater, New York City

Purcell’s “King Arthur”, a restoration spectacular based on the battles between King Arthur’s Britons and the marauding Saxons, was first performed at the Queen’s Theatre, Dorset Garden, London, in 1691. Few details are available about the original staging, but we can be pretty certain that it didn’t involve a refrigerator! That was no barrier to American choreographer Mark Morris, whose own fanciful version of Purcell’s work features a baritone trapped in a 1960s-era model of one.

Subtitled ‘A Dramatick Opera’ the work was conceived as a hybrid musical entertainment in which Purcell’s music served as an accompaniment to John Dryden’s spoken text. The seventeenth-century libretto is unrelated to the Camelot legend. Instead, it recounts the young king’s efforts to recover his fiancée, the blind Princess Emmeline, from his arch-enemy, the Saxon King, Oswald of Kent, who has abducted her.

This ‘campy’ production does away with most of Dryden’s plot and all of his dialogue and gives us what Morris calls “a sort of vaudeville”: a revue-like sequence of songs, pantomime, dances – even juggling performances – all set to Purcell’s elegant music. The action takes place over five nearly self-contained acts and is relocated to a theatre rehearsal room. The time is the present, and the seven solo singers who wander among sixteen members of the Mark Morris Dance Company portray an array of eccentric characters from many different eras and mythologies in a Monty Python-like amusement. King Arthur never appears; his royal presence is reduced to a spotlighted crown that shows up on different areas of the stage from time to time, or the initials “K.A.” stenciled on the backs of some metal chairs in the rehearsal room. To make room for the dancers, the chorus is relegated to the orchestra pit. Purcell’s wonderful melodies, ‘Fairest Isle’ among them, remain, and are at the center of the production.

The staging, premiered by the English National Opera in 2006, and first mounted in the United States by Cal Performances in Berkeley, California, brings dance and whimsy to the forefront. Adrianne Lobel’s bare-bones set consists mainly of curtains (variously plush red velvet, wrinkled muslin or vari-colored glittering beads), along with some free-standing doorframes, and a few potted pines constantly shuffled around by the performers. Isaac Mizrahi’s dazzling array of colorful costumes seem like bits and pieces snatched from the wardrobe trunk of an amateur theatrical company.

While Morris’s irreverent, vaudeville style entertainment has many amusing moments, not everything is an unqualified success. The ‘Frost Scene’ of Act Three – when Cupid descends on the Cold Genius of Winter entrapped in that old-fashioned fridge, and bare-legged dancers in flannel blankets shiver and hover around the stage – is one of the more notable comic moments, along with the whole final act: a hilariously ostentatious display of British patriotism, complete with banners, a maypole with red, white and blue streamers and, in the very final moments, paper airplanes.

Musically, the show is superb. Jane Glover conducted the score lovingly, shaping every note with graceful and energetic style. The seven solo singers were all excellent, including four new to NYCO. Soprano Mhairi Lawson turned in an especially impressive performance in a variety of roles, most notably as Cupid in Act Three. Iestyn Davies’s countertenor was focused and smoothly expressive, and Steven Sanders’s strong, rounded, remarkably secure tenor was a delight. Baritone Alexander Tall also did splendid work.

NYCO regulars Sarah Jane McMahon and Heidi Stober gave strong performances as the other two sopranos, turning in an especially seductive rendition of ‘Two daughters of this aged stream are we’ the song of the two sirens in Act Four. Scott Guinn (substituting for the ill Daniel Mobbs) made an excellent impression with his fine, sturdy baritone. All seven solo singers displayed impeccably clear diction.

Most of all, this production of “King Arthur” provides New York audiences with a rare and wonderful opportunity to hear Purcell’s gloriously lyrical score performed with great sensitivity and skill.

  • This performance of King Arthur was preceded by one on March 5
  • Further performances on March 8, 9, 12, 13 & 15
  • New York City Opera

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