Purcell’s “King Arthur” premiered to great acclaim in London in 1691.Then, opera’s principal characters did not sing, except if they were supernatural, pastoral or somewhat tipsy. Instead, the protagonists are actors, and much of King Arthur is simply spoken text which here, in Herbert Fritsch’s new production in Zürich, was delivered in German only. Sabrina Zwach’s translation of the libretto included clever plays-on-words, and allusions to 20th-century events and sexual politics, boosting the comic content considerably. The songs, however, were sung in English, injecting Dryden’s eloquence and poetry like sparkling gems of wisdom throughout. Under the musical direction of Laurence Cummings, the accomplished Orchestra La Scintilla performed its usual magic. In short, the Baroque configuration brought out the very best of the “scintillating” in Purcell, the sensation that nicely underscores its own name.
As a noble symbol for “Britishness”, King Arthur and his legend have inspired countless poems and plays, Hollywood films and television documentaries, all of which bridge the gap between reality and illusion. In Zurich, director and set designer Fritsch pulled out all the stops to shake-up, amuse and bemuse within that framework. Here is the “juice that makes the Britons bold” the chorus in Act I sings, but what in the story is real? What is unreal? Does Merlin’s intervention alone ensure King Arthur’s victory? Does his beloved Emmeline regain her eyesight by virtue of some superhuman power? Whichever side you come down on, the action here was almost consistently tumultuous, and its frequent slapstick and Monty Python-like antics were not to everyone’s liking. Over one particularly chaotic scene, someone bellowed from the second balcony: “but with a little class!” Fair enough an objection, but given that tumult on the stage was not uncommon in Purcell and Dryden’s time, should we argue for historical accuracy? I think not.
Arthur himself wore a custom-fit, full set of metal armour, whose constant clatter was used as an omnipresent gag. But many such humorous bits recurred ad infinitum, which was tiresome. More effective by far was – just once – seeing one of Arthur’s attendants like an angry dog, growling and viciously biting the shin of the enemy. Fortunately, to Fritch’s credit, the staging stayed simple; a single screen’s highly pixelated surface changed colour according to the mood of onstage events. Given the elaborate costumes, I was grateful for no additional visual stimulus in the form of props.
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