Last night various bits of the early music side of the UoT Faculty of Music, plus guests, put on a performance of Purcell’s King Arthur at Trinity St. Paul’s. I’m pretty familiar with the piece from both audio and video recordings (though this was my first time live) but it was clear last night that most people really don’t know the work and I suspect that the way the work was presented was not especially helpful for them.
The program contains detailed notes by director Erik Thor about his thoughts on presenting a “problem piece” without really explaining why King Arthur is a problem or why he made the choices he made. We are told it’s about conquest and erasure but not how and why it differs from what most people seem to expect when they see the title King Arthur. In short, it’s a highly fictionalised version of the very old Welsh stories about the resistance of the (Christian) Britons to the (Pagan) Saxons. Forget Geoffrey of Monmouth, Tennyson, TE White and Monty Python. Oddly, Merlin, perhaps the one character anyone would recognise, is cut here. The work itself is also a bit incoherent largely because Dryden (the librettist) tried to recast what was originally a court spectacular to the glory of Charles II as something that would work in the theatre and pass the censorship under William and Mary!
Thor’s “solution” is to ditch all the dialogue and replace it with ballet. This might work pretty well for an audience with a basic grasp of the story and if one could actually hear the sung words, which now have to carry the narrative. Unfortunately the audience wasn’t familiar with the story and the words were largely MIA. Trinity St. Paul’s is a terrible eater of words and presenting a piece without surtitles pretty much guarantees incomprehensibility. So what we ended up with was a collection of tunes; some better known than others, with only a short synopsis (which can’t be read in the dark) to give the audience some idea of what was going on.
That said, many of the individual scenes were quite well conceived. The Pastoral was amusing and the Harvest Home was suitably boisterous. The dance, choreographed by Dominic Who who also danced Arthur, was excellent. The dancers who represented Oswald and Emmeline are not credited in the programme which seems especially unfair as they were actually, along with Who, the stars of the show. I liked having the chorus; divided into Britons and Saxons, singing from opposite sides of the gallery
The vocal numbers are usually shared out between about half a dozen singers. Here twenty five were used ranging from students to seasoned professionals like Bradley Christensen and Asitha Tennekoon. The results were, unsurprisingly, uneven with some of the best numbers being rather underwhelming. The chorus though was spot on and the thirteen piece (plus keyboards) band with Larry Beckwith as concertmaster was capable of both delicacy and Purcellian grandeur. Drums and trumpets! Christopher Bagan conducted from the harpsichord.
This way of presenting King Arthur could have worked really well with a few tweaks. I usually loathe intros that explain pieces but here five minutes from the director might have been a good idea. Also surtitles and, maybe, just a couple of lines of dialogue between numbers. As presented I think it left a lot of the audience rather puzzled.