Purcell – King Arthur / Salzburg 2004 (2)

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Because this is staged in Salzburg, the English dialogue of the play has been translated into German. The sung texts remain in English. You might think this would be strange, but for whatever reason, I didn’t find it jarring. And the production gets some good mileage out of the language-swapping; in Act V one of the characters begins a speech about the future glory of Britain, in English, which is interrupted by someone else reminding the speaker, in German, that the audience might not understand what he’s saying, and perhaps the speech should be in German – it’s quite funny. (And it shows, happily I think, that WWII was a long time ago.)

But there is war in this opera. The costumes of Arthur and his followers look like mid-twentieth century military uniforms, and when the Saxons arrive, they are wearing pith helmets and I think rain capes – but they all seem to have neon-pink hair! Later on, Osmond (I want to call him Donny or something, because then I wouldn’t get him mixed up with Oswald) bicycles onto the stage wearing a fatigue-green rain poncho. But this is a production that undercuts “interpretation” in that sense – it’s not about WWII, or about twentieth-century war in general. There are too many other things going on, and the production itself is too generally cheerful for that. Philidel (Alexandra Henkel, with singing bits sung by Barbara Bonney) wears a grubby white 17th-century suit and striped socks; Emmeline and Matilda have black dresses and Doc Martens, Harnoncourt gets to wear a little fuzzy hat for the “frost” scene (which has penguins!), there are angels with airplane signal lights during “hither this way,” Merlin descends to the stage at one point on a wind-surfing board, the “mirror” that Emmeline looks into when she regains her sight is a video camera, everyone is in evening gowns by the end – there are too many touches like this to list. The cumulative effect is to push the drama right back where it belongs into the realm of lighthearted fairy story.

There is also plenty of interaction between performers and orchestra and performers and audience. While being pursued at one point Philidel leaps down into the orchestra pit and asks one of the violinists “Alice! is there room?” and then pleads with Harnoncourt to have the orchestra play something – “Schubert! Schumann! Verdi! Anything!” as a diversion. In Act IV, Merlin enters through the auditorium, disguised as an elderly and conservative opera-goer who disrupts the performance (an usher tries to intervene, but is powerless to stop the monologue) and holds forth about how she is tired of all these new productions and insists that she knows how the classics ought to be staged, because they were done in their original and appropriate form twenty-five years ago, and all this new nonsense is awful – the scene is quite funny. (The audience in this seems so unresponsive! They don’t laugh or react nearly as much as I would expect.)

This production, in other words, is fun and coherent in its very lack of coherence and immensely entertaining – and oh yeah, there is also some pretty nice singing in it.

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