King Arthur, Henry Purcell and John Dryden’s five-act semi-opera from 1690, is a work seldom seen on opera stages. This can be explained by the generous proportion of spoken dialogue interwoven with musical interludes, an ambiguous genre identity and, not least, the ample problems presented by its obscure content. For the Berliner Staatsoper’s production, early music specialist René Jacobs, conducting the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, teamed up with directors Sven-Eric Bechtolf and Julian Crouch for a new adaptation of this heroic epic.

Solving the dramaturgical issue of joining the elements of an inherently fragmented piece to make it understandable for today’s opera audiences was one of the creative team’s most challenging tasks. In their interpretation, the tale of King Arthur’s victory over the Saxons and their King Oswald is framed by a narrative set in England during World War II, which aims to thread together the seven, largely self-contained musical episodes allowing a 21st-century audience a means of identification. In most places, the approach of interlacing medieval legend and 20th-century political history – somewhat surprisingly – works. Here, a young boy named Arthur relives the tales of the past through his grandfather’s story book, which guides him through an enchanted, sleepy-eyed journey of the past and its repercussions for the presence. A German adaptation of John Dryden’s libretto, which retains the original’s poetic and declamatory style, is complemented by frequent excursions into modern-day speech with the occasional moment of stand-up jokiness (an endlessly-recycled remark of watches/ cinemas/ deodorants not having been invented yet, falls flat).

Not only with regards to combining different styles of language and jumping back and forth between times, the directors’ decision to embrace the original’s eclecticism pays off. Contrasting modes of theatrical practice, such as enchanting video projections of pastoral landscape painting, returning sections of puppet theatre or the flying machines, hand-moved paper waves and symmetrical tree designs of the Baroque theatre are beautifully integrated to create an opulent visual spectacle, which seamlessly moves from one image to the next. Julian Crouch’s imaginative and magnificently-crafted stage sets and Kevin Pollard’s wonderful costumes also significantly ease the transition between times and places. The multi-layered structure of what Purcell and Dryden called a “dramatick opera” allows for a level of critical reflection, which is explored in several places. To introduce the martial “Come if you dare”, Bechtolf and Crouch invent a BBC radio commentator, who tunes into the “glorious sounds of battle” before announcing Purcell’s war song as an expression of British heroism.

Frequently throughout the evening, traits commonly identified as typically British are satirized, not least the soldiers’ raucous behaviour when drink is involved and their liking for national holidays (the lusty St George’s Day celebrations have been moved to a veterans’ home). Amidst ironic undertones and moments of unashamed laughter, the lack of any alienation technique during the finale’s delve into rousing patriotism is both surprising and slightly disturbing. There is no apparent hint of critical engagement as the audience watches the young boy’s indoctrination with nationalist sentiment and the glorification of soldiers fallen while serving their country in battle.

The large cast of soloist comprises several spoken roles, from among which Oliver Stokowski as evil and notoriously horny and molesting spirit Osmond (equipped at times with an outsized phallus) deserves a special mention. The singing cast – all of which played up to six parts each – were strong throughout. Soprano Anett Fritsch marvelled as Merlin’s trusty spirit Philidel and Cupido, her coloratura agile and light, her singing and speaking impressive both on stage and whilst airborne. Bass Johannes Weisser played a suitably repulsive Grimbald and convinced vocally in the Cold Genius’ staccato aria “What Ho”. Soprano Robin Johannsen and Altus Benno Schachtner delighted particularly during their touching love duet.

The real stars of the evening however do not appear on stage, but rather sit and stand in the elevated orchestra pit. Jacobs and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin performed with great feeling for dynamic nuance and phrase, their sound is expressive and varied, and throughout perfectly balanced against both soloists and choir. The rendition of “Hither this way” at the beginning of Act II was particularly spirited, with a swift tempo and added syncopations for a dancing feel. Jacobs complements the original score with additional music by Purcell, which appears as background music during spoken dialogues to bridge the stark contrasts of the original structure.