John Dryden’s libretto for Henry Purcell’s “Dramatick Opera,” King Arthur, recounts the mythical monarch’s battle for control of ancient Britain and exalts the nation’s prowess as of 1691, but the deliriously lovely songs and triumphal marches—and those passages where the music shakes with laughter or stutters with cold—are mostly about love, with sly allusions to sexual pleasures.
The fabulous New York City Opera production, directed and choreographed by Mark Morris, dispenses with the spoken text. Songs dealing with armed pursuit over treacherous terrain become a hunt for love with glow-worm flashlights, bantering couple dances, and a dizzying, deliberately clumsy vaudevillian game with doors and mirrors. The Act II, Scene 2 curtain descends on a frenzy of imaginative coupling.
In fact, Morris has turned the opera into a kind of vaudeville—or, rather, a rehearsal for one. While the orchestra and chorus under the leadership of Jane Glover play from the pit, the dancers and singers trundle the platforms and fir trees of Adrianne Lobel’s set around and keep reappearing in different motley attire by Isaac Mizrahi that suggests they’ve raided a costume box in haste. Breastplate, anyone? Camouflage shorts? At one point, tenor Steven Sanders comes on in boxer shorts and a judge’s curly white periwig; dancer Julie Worden finishes the show in a red bikini, striped shirt, white tailcoat, naval officer’s cap, and glittering blue boots.
I love the way Morris has intermingled his wonderful company members and the seven superb vocalists, and directed them to pay attention to one another. At times, singers join the dance, and dancers open their mouths in song. When soprano Sarah Jane McMahon and baritone Alexander Tall wrangle over the pains or joys of love, taking turns to climb up to a platform and address each other, dancers Elisa Clark and Charlton Boyd (dressed, for the moment, as a sylphide and a ballet prince) encourage, comfort, and help them reunite.
How could you not rejoice in the sight of bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs crammed into a refrigerator, his words jolting out, while soprano Mhairi Lawson struts about as Cupid, telling him love’s a blessing, not something to freeze up over? How could you not laugh over the absurdity of Tall, Sanders, and countertenor Iestyn Davies folding laundry as they sing proudly of the importance of British wool? Or admire Morris’s clever gestural equivalents to certain lyrics? And don’t forget the giraffe and the duck and the phallo-patriotic maypole. Purcell’s music—lovingly, teasingly, cleverly articulated—bears this barge of delights along. I need to see-hear King Arthur again right this minute.