A Dramatick Opera in Five Acts by Henry Purcell.
Libretto: John Dryden.
Director: Jürgen Flimm, Conductor: Nikolaus Harnoncourt. In multiple singing roles: Isabel Rey (soprano), Barbara Bonney (soprano), Birgit Remmert (contralto), Michael Schade (tenor), Oliver Widmer (baritone). Spoken roles: Sylvie Rohrer (Emmeline), Alexandra Henkel (Philidel), Michael Maertens (King Arthur), Christoph Bantzer (Merlin), Werner Wölbern (Grimbald), Dietmar König (Oswald), Ulli Maier (Mathilda), Roland Renner (Osmond), Peter Maertens (Conon), Christoph Kail (Aurelius). Salzburg Festival, 2004. EuroArts DVD.
Just deciding what King Arthur is on the bases of what remains of it was huge part of the job for Flimm and Harnoncourt. The “Dramatick Opera” is a collection of sung, spoken and danced bits the intended order of which is not known, and neither is the definitive score or instrumentation. The arrangement they decided on works well. This King Arthur doesn’t get unstuck into its sum parts.
The stage is circular and encloses the orchestra pit where Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus Wien are placed. The space inside the pit is also part of the drama. Characters hide there when chased, ask the Maestro if he has a sword, hand him and the musicians toques for the Freeze Scene and so on. There also some action in the auditorium and through the orchestra seats. All that is very fitting for this, genre-anarchic operatic work.
Two tribes are at war: the Britons against the Saxons, who have yet to adopt Christianity and give up Wotan, Freya and Thor. They’re warring over territories, but also over a woman, the blind Emmeline, who favours the Brit King Arthur. There is some WWI imagery in costuming: Britons are very WWI Britain and Saxons are more Teutonic with all manner of unruly Wagnerian ‘dos. Soon enough, though, their allies in the form of fairies, ghosts, wizards and witches take over the action and the historical references luckily withdraw to the background. The would-be lovers, together with their sidekicks, wander around the fantastic landscapes until they are happily reunited.
The interplay of spoken and sung parts is choreographed in many interesting ways; sometimes the sung roles are the aspects of the spoken characters’ personalities or their evil or better doubles. Singing was lovely and well stylized, except for Isabel Rey’s soprano which sounded much too big and vibrato-y for this kind of thing. Barbara Bonney showed that her sense of humour includes laughing at herself: in her final aria she parodies her own image of the cute, forever young and forever debutante type of singer, and her own star status within this production.
The acting is superb in spoken roles. Alexandra Henkel as the air spirit Philidel, Sylvie Rohrer as the blind Emmeline who gains sight and experience (and the boy) on the way to denouement, Werner Wölbern as the hilariously disfigured and stinky spirit of the earth and Christoph Bantzer who played Merlin as a Quentin Crisp old queen, created such rich personalities that you really didn’t miss the music for one second. The physical fight between King Arthur and his opponent Oswald, one among several Oh! What a Lovely War moments, is staged as a boxing match between two least physically apt men in history, refereed by the jittery Sopranos-type performed by Michael Schade. Merlin is given some spectacular entrances, the best of which is the improvised monologue he gives as an old lady subscriber of the Salzburg Festival who claims her seat in the second row was mistakenly given to somebody else and launches into a rant about all the awful liberties directors take with the operas today. “Do you know who you’re talking to? My husband is the CEO of Global Management and Consult Inc. in Frankfurt am Main!… When Mr Mortier was in charge, this kind of thing never happened!… Nothing remains of what we’ve been used to for years! Now we open with this musical! 20-25 years ago we saw classics how they were originally staged!”
Entertainment of the best kind.