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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
King Arthur (1691)
Anett Frisch, Robin Johannsen (sopranos), Benno Schachtner (counter-tenor), Mark Milhofer, Stephan Rügamer (tenors), Arttu Kataja, Johannes Weisser (baritones)
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/René Jacobs
rec. live, 19 and 21 January 2017, Staatsoper in Schiller Theater, Berlin
NAXOS NBD0109V Blu-ray [170 mins]

As a musical practitioner myself, I am always extremely reluctant to condemn anybody who goes to the trouble of presenting a musical performance and the financial commitment of issuing it on record. In a review one might query the competence of a performance, or indeed the quality of a composition, but one should always respect the effort and engagement that has gone into it. Which means that I feel decidedly uncomfortable when condemning outright a recording that has clearly involved a considerable degree of rehearsal and involvement on the part of the performers; but this Blu-ray issue of Purcell’s King Arthur really has almost no redeeming features whatsoever.

Of course it goes without saying that it is very problematic to stage one of Purcell’s ‘semi-operas’ nowadays. The form itself, with musical masques interspersed almost randomly through a dramatically incoherent play, is almost beyond redemption. We accept works like King Arthur or The Fairy Queen for the sake of Purcell’s incomparable music, not for the setting in which they are placed. Dryden’s patriotic effusions are tawdry poetry, and simply embarrassing for modern listeners, and there is nothing that can be done to rescue them – unless we are prepared to treat them as period pieces, museum exhibits, in which case they might perhaps be received as examples of the taste of their time. They do not even have the stylistic unity of Handelian operas, because the gaps between musical items are too large to be tolerable.

But treating King Arthur as an example of its period is clearly the last thing that is on anybody’s mind here. René Jacobs, at least, ought to know better. Indeed in an interview in the booklet with a sycophantic Detlef Giese (who also wrote the synopsis for what is laughingly described as the plot, bearing little or no resemblance to anything that Purcell or Dryden would have recognised), Jacobs admits that “I imagine that it is very difficult to perform King Arthur in a historical or a historicist style.” Well, if he really believes that, what is he doing performing Purcell in what he clearly intends to be an appropriate period style? He clearly thinks he can do justice to the music; why should he abdicate any responsibility for the drama?

Because what we are given here is a complete mis-match where the original plot is almost entirely overwritten with a nonsensical farrago revolving around the eighth birthday of a remarkably taciturn boy (called Arthur, geddit?) who is given a book by his wheelchair-bound grandfather (another cliché of modern producers) who then assumes the role of Merlin to present various extracts from the life of the pseudo-historical King Arthur and his conflict with the Saxons. Arthur himself, played with wide-eyed innocence by non-singing actor Michael Rotschopf, is dressed in a costume that looks suspiciously like a cast-off from Monty Python with armour leggings superimposed over modern trousers; his Saxon opponents look like effete refugees from a Berlin 1930s cabaret, and the soldiers are a motley collection of troops from all historical periods who finish up as casualties in a field hospital wearing party hats while being pushed around in wheelchairs by Red Cross nurses. The evil magician Grimbald is portrayed as a down-and-out from the streets who is sarcastically instructed by his overlord Oswald to get a manicure or pedicure, or at least that is what the English subtitles provide as translations from the German.

Yes, German. Because Sven-Eric Bechtolf and Julian Crouch have not only supplied whole reams of their own dialogue, they have also done Dryden the dubious favour of translating what is left of his couplets into German. The English subtitles, retaining the original text, then look ridiculous; and the addition of a herald waving a Union Jack (appropriate historically neither to the period of Arthur or of Purcell) is a cheap and tacky method of providing what is presumably meant to be a parody of British patriotism. The acting of the German speaking cast does nothing to redeem matters, being a badly realised cross between expressionist semaphore and elements of French farce. The music, which retains Purcell’s English, is thereby isolated even further from any point of contact from the dramatic action; and when one of the wheelchair-bound veterans suddenly assumes the role of Purcell’s shepherd to sing How blest are shepherds the result is not only absurd but totally and repulsively alienating. Oh, and King Arthur and some of the other actors finish up at one point in the front row of the stalls; it is not clear why, since they don’t actually do anything when they are there – and, after a couple of minutes of desultory hanging about, they get back up onstage again.

In these circumstances it is customary for the reviewer to recommend that the purchaser of the offending video production should listen with their eyes closed, although that rather undoes the point of purchasing a video in the first place. But that is unfortunately no solution. In the first place the German dialogue, screeched or yelled in what is I imagine supposed to be a parody of some theatrical style or other, frequently intrudes over the music, even interrupting the opening overture. Jacobs has added some additional music by Purcell to plug the gaps between the more substantial musical numbers, which might perhaps have made some sense if the instrumental passages in question had been audible under the barrage of German that all but overwhelms it. (The Union Jack-waving episode is one of these imports, a vocal item imported from Purcell’s Hail, bright Cecilia, and what it is doing here is anybody’s guess.) And this macaronic overlay goes on and on.

The singers are not a very impressive bunch, either. The principal soprano roles are taken by Anett Frisch whose command of English is patchy at best and almost totally incomprehensible at worst – it comes as a relief at one point when she suddenly lapses into singing in German. The wheelchair-bound shepherd is sung by Stephan Rügamer whom I have encountered as Loge in stagings of Rheingold but who sounds totally out of his depth in Purcell’s decorative style and is not all that audible either. Grimbald is sung by Johannes Weisser who has the right sort of sound, but who is comprehensively upstaged by the actor Tom Radisch who mimes along to his singing and adds shambling Chaplin-like dance movements which fit neither with the villainous nature of the character nor with the rhythms of the music. The rest of the singing veers from the acceptable to the downright inadequate, with strained tenors and questionable accents the order of the day. There is some improvement towards the end, but even so the delivery of Fairest isle, surely the highpoint of the score, is so swift as to be positively perfunctory; there is absolutely no feeling to the performance of Frisch at this point. The soprano who sings Honour is fine in Saint George but her name is concealed from the listener since she is not listed in the booklet; otherwise it is far from clear who is doing what, since the list of characters bears little resemblance to what we see on stage. (Admittedly the fact that the booklet contains five pages listing the participants in individual tracks enabled me to keep some point of reference, but even then only to a limited extent.)

Nor does the playing of the orchestra do much to rectify the balance, with percussive effects of dubious period veracity and stage noises doing their best of nullify any sense of emotional engagement. It need hardly be added that the scenery – with its flying chairs hoisted up to the roof, its crashed Messerschmidt (or whatever that plane is meant to be), its pretty-pretty English landscape which emerges pointlessly from below the stage and then just as pointlessly submerges – is both meaningless and frequently ugly. It does not even have symbolism to justify it. And when we do get hints of symbolism, as in the guying of thoughtless British patriotism, it is simultaneously overblown and horribly dated. It might be objected that I am lacking in a sense of humour, or that the German sense of humour is different. Well, the Berlin audience don’t seem to find many of the interpolated visual or spoken gags funny either, except when their incongruity is so excessive as to be risible.

By the way, the end of Act One comes halfway through Purcell and Dryden’s Act Three; and that is after we have already heard music from Act Four. If this is the manner in which performers wish to treat Purcell’s music, they had much better leave it alone. And one heartily wishes that they had left undisturbed Purcell’s sublime music for the funeral of Queen Mary, abruptly introduced into the final scene and performed in a satirical manner which seems deliberately designed to shock. But then this seems to be on a par with a performance which totally fails to engage with the spirit of the age. The downbeat ending also, with the death of Arthur, is hardly in accord with the express intentions of either Purcell or Dryden. Authenticity seems to be at a low premium here.

The production itself, which was clearly expensive, seems to have attracted perhaps predictably laudatory notices from some German critics. Mark Berry for the Seen and Heard pages of this site was decidedly less impressed, with comments such as “That combination of something not nearly so clever as it thinks it is with mere silliness certainly haunted a good deal of what we saw,” and musically that “the relative intimacy of Purcell’s writing here – compare it with, say, The Fairy Queen – was often lost, without sign of any true rethinking in modern terms.” Just so. It might just work as a novelty turn in the theatre; for home consumption, and presumably for repetition, it is a total non-starter.

In the booklet Jacobs describes Purcell’s score as “a far more dramatic piece than The Fairy Queen.” Not here it isn’t. This travesty does it no favours whatsoever, and I cannot imagine anyone except the most hardened fan of novelty for its own sake sitting through it with any degree of pleasure. The audience, who only vouchsafe desultory applause at the end of Act One, suddenly erupt into audible cheers during the final curtain calls, which conspicuously highlight the contribution of the actors at the expense of the singers; but the picture we see of the audience shows sedate and dutiful applause only.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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