March 15, 2008

The Dethroning of "King Arthur"

You almost never hear any theater lover cry out boo at the end of a show. But opera fans are different. They regularly cheer on their favorites with shouts of “Bravo!” and “Brava!” and they just as passionately cry down performances they don’t like with boos, hisses and whistles. Still, it seemed to take the audience back a bit this past week when an audience member, sitting in one of the upper rings, booed loudly when the curtain came down on the first act of the performance I attended of King Arthur, which opened on March 5 at New York City Opera and has its final performance tonight.

King Arthur was originally a 17th century dramatic-opera, a kind of early musical in which much of the text is actually spoken, written by the British baroque master Henry Purcell, with a libretto by the Restoration-era poet and playwright John Dryden. But now the eccentric choreographer Mark Morris has turned it into what he calls a “pageant” by adding dance numbers and humorous tableaux, while still cutting the four-hour piece in half by throwing out all of the spoken text and, according to notes in the Playbill, even getting rid of the character of King Arthur who is now represented solely by a crown. I say according to the Playbill because, to be honest, I don’t know what the hell was going on in Morris’ production. And I say this as a Mark Morris fan.

Back in 1991, I got to spend a week in Brussels hanging out with Morris’ company when he was preparing to end its tenure as the resident company at the Théâtre de La Monnaie and move back to New York. Right before he left Brussels, the company premiered The Hard Nut, his delightfully campy version of The Nutcracker and it still makes me giggle when I see it. At the same time, I think his L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, ed Il Moderato and Dido and Aeneas are incredibly beautiful and moving works. I’m also a Purcell fan and a sucker for stories about knights in armor, so it was a no-brainer for me when I got a flyer in the mail about King Arthur.

The production has a lot going for it. Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi did the costumes, scenic designer Adrianne Lobel created fanciful images, the singers perform their arias with aplomb, the dancers are lovely to watch (although I do miss the unconventionally-shaped dancers that Morris used to favor—one of his former stars was a fat-man-sized dancer who was incredibly light on his feet) and Purcell’s music is gorgeous and played superbly by the City Opera orchestra. But from the moment the dancers came on stage in A Chorus Line-style sweats, I knew the show was going in a very different direction than I’d imagined. I’m usually willing to follow artists when they venture off the beaten path. In fact, I think leading the way into new artistic and intellectual territory is part of their job description. But I confess I couldn’t keep up this time.

I was as startled as everyone else in the audience when the guy in the balcony shouted out his unhappiness but I empathized with him too. The woman sitting on my right was horrified by the outburst. “I don’t know why he came,” she said to her companion. “Some people just don’t know how to appreciate the avant garde.” This time, alas, I was among their number.


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