The genre of semi-opera is a peculiarly British one. Emerging from the courtly Masques during the restoration, the semi-opera served as an English operatic utterance, at a time where opera was emerging as one of the pre-eminent theatrical forms in Europe. However, England’s tradition of spoken theatre was much stronger and less music-centric than in France or Italy, where opera was making the most headway, and thus Britain’s main “operas” were centred around spoken plays, where pastoral and mythical characters sung rather than (or as well as) speaking. Mere mortals didn’t sing to communicate, but the heightened speech of the gods had historically been likened to singing and so could be represented as such on stage without upsetting the sense of realism.

Cast of King Arthur © David Baltzer
Cast of King Arthur
© David Baltzer

On Friday evening, the Dresden State Theatre celebrated its 100th birthday, and chose an obscure, English semi-opera, Purcell and Dryden’s King Arthur, for the occasion. An seemingly unusual choice, especially for a city which still bears the devastating scars of Britain’s wartime bombing. However, the history of the house and the company make this genre appropriate. The theatre was for a long time Dresden’s opera house, where the Dresden State Opera performed. The semi-opera genre allows the ensemble of the city’s theatre to work alongside the ensemble of the city’s opera as a joint celebration of their shared history.

The screen behind the prologue lifts to reveal a sparse, triangular stage with a steep rake. The shape makes the stage seem small, but the rake and shape gave a feeling of great depth, allowing them to use it as a small, singular space, while having the ability to create the impression of great distance, which proves effective.

The spoken dialogue is performed in German, so for English speakers it’s worth checking a synopsis beforehand (as always with opera), but the acting is effective enough to overcome any language barrier. Matthias Reichwald is a young and inexperienced Arthur, with an idealistic naivety underpinning his character. Christian Erdmann’s Oswald, the King of the Saxons, is puerile but opportunistic, and comes off all the better for it. His servant, the ugly sorcerer Osmund, portrayed by Benjamin Pauquet, is lecherous but somehow sympathetic, the evil wonderfully transformed into pathetic comedy. However, the star of the show was Sonja Beißwenger, whose performance as Philadel, an air spirit, was full of energy and gollum-like self-contradiction. Her staccato movements, restless eyes, and inimitable delivery were by turns unsettling and lovable, becoming a focal point for the evening.

The sung interludes are in English. This is a rising vogue in opera and musical theatre, to only translate spoken dialogue, a great way to render the action readily intelligible to the audience, without upsetting the vital balance between music and text. Few of the singers are native speakers of English, and while there had clearly been attention given to the language, the results were not always successful on Friday. The two sopranos Nadja Mchantaf and Arantza Ezenarro had wonderfully complimentary voices, working perfectly in duet, Mchantaf wonderfully rich and sensual, Ezenarro sweet and effervescent. Both sung with good English, as did Romy Petrick as Cupid. The evil earth spirit Grimbald was sung and acted by Peter Lobert, whose deep bass voice made the whole room resonate, whether he was speaking or singing, though sadly the quality of his English didn’t match that of his voice. The Korean baritone Ilhun Jung disappointed somewhat, not only with his English, which was nearly impossible to understand, but also with his voice, which though round in tone, lacked lyricism. American tenor Simeon Esper’s voice, however, was perhaps the best in the production, not because of the native quality of the English, but because of the sheer variety of colours in his voice, at times trumpet-like, at others softly lyrical.

In the pit, Felice Venanzoni and Collegium 1704 are truly outstanding, with stylish and imaginative playing throughout. Theirs wasn’t a sterile performance, as so many historically informed performances can be, but lived and breathed and exuded joy. I was reminded of my favourite recording of Dido and Aeneas, with Emmanuelle Haïm and her ensemble Le Concert d’Astrée.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this production is the thorough integration of music and drama. Both Peter Lobert and Nadja Mchantaf prove themselves not only to be wonderful singers, but consummate actors, indistinguishable from the theatre ensemble until they start to sing. The other significant singer/actor role is that of Philadel, a challenge which director Tilmann Köhler deftly solves by having the character control other figures on stage like a puppeteer and sing through them. This furthers the light-hearted mood which Köhler cultivates throughout this production, most notably playing on the performance venue.

The semi-opera concerns a war between the Saxons and the Britons, and was written for a British audience as a celebration of Britishness. But it’s now being performed in Saxony, and as a celebration of Saxon history, and Köhler turns this to his advantage, from jokes about the audience in the first half (“the Saxons are listening!”) to a rather large comedic plot twist at the end, where and last vestiges of seriousness are abandoned and comedy takes over.

This is a lovely evening of theatre, and a very interesting experience to watch the worlds of opera and spoken theatre interact so thoroughly, as they sadly so seldom do.

***11