One of the givens about Mark Morris is that he’s especially musical. And certainly he’s shown an unusually broad and knowledgeable appreciation of music in his choice of scores. Just as important, he’s trained his dancers to inhabit the music fully and sensitively. (He himself was deeply musical as a dancer.) So what to make of his version of Henry Purcell’s semi-opera, semi-masque King Arthur, now at the New York City Opera? According to the program notes, Morris has fashioned “a colorful, frothy, and engaging vaudeville-style entertainment” and, in a way, that’s exactly what he’s done, although it’s nowhere near so engaging as he clearly thinks it is. The problem is that all this froth doesn’t reflect the virile, capacious quality of either the music or John Dryden’s superb poetry.
This is one of those productions that deliberately calls attention to its staginess—we begin with seven chairs in a semicircle waiting for the singers, who stroll in through a dressing-room door. They’re in mufti—one guy has bare legs and shorts, another bare knees. It’s Today, and we’re in the State Theater. Everyone’s in friendly rehearsal mode—lots of handshakes and manly pats on shoulders: choreographed casualness. Jerome Robbins was doing this kind of thing half a century ago.
The story of King Arthur is hopeless, and Morris has been right to ditch it and all the dialogue with it. (No blind Emmeline, Arthur’s abducted betrothed.) That leaves a series of infinitely various and lovely scenes, as in an oratorio. If our theaters had the opulent scenic and mechanical devices available to royal courts in the 17th century, it would make sense to deploy them, but they don’t, and Morris doesn’t. Instead, he brings on his dancers as background to the singers, and occasionally foreground. But this isn’t a danced opera; it’s a sung semi-opera with dancing as embroidery. And in his attempt to liven things up, to give us the old oom-pah-pah, Morris is playing jokes, making cute, updating. It doesn’t work.
Take the famous “freezing” number: “What power art thou, who from below / Hast made me rise unwillingly and slow / From beds of everlasting snow?” So stutters the Cold Genius (the whole world is frozen over by magic) when awakened by Cupid. Powerful, grand, almost tragic. Morris has him cowering in a refrigerator—the stuttering made into a big joke. If you’ve really responded to this music, you don’t sacrifice its beauty for a quick laugh. This is the result of not trusting the work of art you’re presumably honoring.
There are numerous felicitous touches, but they’re no substitute for a serious attempt to reveal the glory of Purcell’s score and Dryden’s words. The dancing lacks invention—most of it looks like vamping. The dancers run around and around in circles. They somersault. They galumph. They have no individual personality. The drama of the music is constantly sacrificed to effects. When shepherds and their lasses gambol, it’s pastorale reduced to pastiche.
How to present so strange an art form to a modern audience? Not through endless restless motion without content, or through imposed jokiness. Morris himself gives us a clue of how it might be done. In his second act, we reach the score’s most famous aria, “Fairest Isle,” one of the most ravishing of all melodies. The singer is Venus, and here is the essential message of King Arthur: It’s Britain that is the fairest isle, “all isles excelling / Seat of pleasure and of love.” Morris stages it simply and movingly—Venus seated quietly, her handmaidens framing her, employing only the barest of formal gestures. We see what King Arthur might be today: a series of animated tableaux adjusting to the nature of each piece of music. And in fact, Morris pulls it off again in the very different next number. Then we’re back to what he describes as “a pageant—a sort of vaudeville.”
But the late-17th-century art of Dryden and Purcell isn’t vaudeville-like. It’s noble, reverberant. It moves you rather than tickles you. Treating it the way Mark Morris has done here isn’t being “musical,” it’s exploiting the music. How strange from the choreographer whose finest achievement, arguably, is his version of Purcell’s great Dido and Aeneas. Dido, of course, is a perfect work of art; Arthur is a jumble. But it’s a glorious jumble, not a romp.
If you care about Purcell, get hold of the William Christie recording of King Arthur, based on a production he mounted in 1995. I don’t know what it looked like, but I know from this recorded performance what King Arthur really is.