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Purcell/Dryden King Arthur

ENO at The Coliseum, London 26 June 2006


Mhairi Lawson; Gillian Keith; Elizabeth Watts
Iestyn Davies
James Gilchrist
Andrew Foster-Williams; William Berger

Director Mark Morris
Set Designer Adrianne Lobel
Costume Designer Isaac Mizrahi
Lighting Designer James F. Ingalls
Mark Morris Dance Group

ENO Chorus and Orchestra/Jane Glover


- - an exemplary semi-opera of the Baroque era, King Arthur (1691/92) was co-authored by John Dryden, a major English poet of the late seventeenth century, and Henry Purcell, the most important English composer of the time - - (Performances of Dryden and Purcell's King Arthur)

No truck with all that from Mark Morris, American choreographer entrusted with directing King Arthur at ENO, supported by a team from USA, including conductor Jane Glover (now Chicago-based, and long associated with Mark Morris) in charge of the ENO Chorus and Orchestra.

"I chose to discard the spoken text (which I don't like) and keep all of the music (which I do)", writes Morris, whose Dance Group dominates the proceedings.

So this is an exuberant Anglo/American show which will hopefully help to restore ENO's fortunes.

I loved it!

The inventive choreography, with movement cliches delightfully exaggerated, never spoilt enjoyment of Purcell's ravishing score, sung by a gifted team of UK based singers, led by James Gilchrist (pictured). Two of the cast are members of the ENO Young Singers group, and all of them acquitted themselves well, helped by Purcell's scoring for small orchestral forces. *

With the ENO Chorus in the pit, and brass and percussion ensuring a lusty sound for the celebratory moments, the music filled the large theatre. More noteworthy, a lone recorder could make its dulcet presence felt, and the quieter numbers made full impact, the singers never needing to strain themselves.

Dryden frequently punctures the overblown rhetoric of the heroic jingoism and there are many felicities counterpointing verse and Purcell's delicious music. Numerous inventive moments which brought a smile included Ingalls's lighting of the Aged Stream to make Morris's depiction of the Two Sirens truly erotic; the Cold Genius, well and truly refrigerated, and a sex romp discreetly censored in the nick of time by quickly dropping the curtain.

Our last experience of King Arthur was in 2000, a triumphant production at Trinity College of Music, with Philip Thorby directing the College's early music group in fully assimilated Baroque performance style. Do click onto that review for something completely different !

There have been numerous well documented revivals, including attempts to recreate the Semi-Opera it was.

Perhaps, since English National Opera has gone transatlantic, it is time for the National Theatre to essay a historically informed staging of this deservedly famous English Opera (a recognised genre, not to be confused with Italian or French opera of the time, as Michael Burden explains in the programme book).

* This report will be expanded by our vocal specialist after a later performance.

Recommended recording: John Eliot Gardiner's admirable CD version [ERATO 4509-96552-2]


© Peter Grahame Woolf