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.

King Arthur at Zurich Oper © Hans Jörg Michel
King Arthur at Zurich Oper
© Hans Jörg Michel
The tale itself revolves around Arthur's attempts to recover his fiancée, the blind Cornish Princess Emmeline, who has been abducted by his enemy, the Saxon King Oswald of Kent. King Arthur's Britons battle the Saxons in a spectacle that features supernatural characters: magicians Merlin and Osmond, the deities Cupid and Venus and a whole host of sprites. Among actors, Arthur (Wolfram Koch), his Emmeline (Ruth Rosenfeld), and her hilarious maid Mathilda (Carol Schuler) were stellar in their roles. The Saxon magician Osmond (Annika Meier) was so exaggeratedly calculating and comic, so real and unreal, that just to experience her was worth the price of admission.

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.

Wolfram Koch (King Arthur) © Hans Jörg Michel
Wolfram Koch (King Arthur)
© Hans Jörg Michel
Albeit, Victoria Behr’s costumes were a feast for eyes. The Saxons’ gold-glitter fabrics dazzled under the lights; some of the “sheep” sported huge fleecy shanks. The fuzzy wig of the childlike wood sprite, Philadel (Mélissa Petit) made her head twice as wide, much like an exaggerated Marie-Antoinette’s, and the stunning, slinky Merlin (Corinna Harfouch) − with her long, stringy grey beard − looked like the glam older cousin of Conchita Wurst. Imagination and hours of hard needlework gave us a whole catalog of kooky fittings and styles.

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.

King Arthur at Zurich Oper © Hans Jörg Michel
King Arthur at Zurich Oper
© Hans Jörg Michel
In the end, it was Henry Purcell who was star of the show. His music is as lively, inspired and – dare I say it – relevant today as it was when he wrote it, and among the orchestrated score and songs, there were extraordinary moments. In the famous "Frost Scene", the masterly build-up to a climax at the end of the chorus’ ''Tis love that has warmed us” was one such delight. As the Cold Genius, Bass Nahuel di Pierro projected convincingly despite his whole body seeming to shudder. Further, the song’s swelling harmonies were in perfect unison with the chorus; chapeau to choir director Michael Zlabinger too, for its clean, sterling contribution. Even three-hundred years ago, the poet Thomas Gray described Cold Genius’s song as "the finest song in the play”. But for me, the more modest “Shepherd’s Song” takes that accolade. Here, dressed in a soft full-length sheepskin like the 12 or so “sheep” who joined him, tenor Mauro Peter rocked back and forth to lull us into a place apart with the most tender and heart-rendering of songs. Removed from the usual stage shuffle, all silly antics aside, that performance singularly defined sweetness, and gave me back what I came for.