When Henry Purcell and John Dryden teamed up in 1691 to write King Arthur, they were experimenting with new media that, unbeknown to them, created a get-out-of-jail-free card for 21st-century directors. Nobody expects companies today to stage King Arthur as it was written. Its vast cast, length and fragmentary nature invite reinvention. In a co-production with Brussels’ La Monnaie, Rotterdam’s Opera Days, Veenfabriek, and Flagey’s KlaraFestival, Muziektheater Transparant has experimented with laudable determination. Peter Verhelst’s new libretto moves the action to the apocalyptic wasteland of a Flemish battlefield some time after the first world war, with a minimalist set by Peter Quasters.
A woman (Claron McFadden) seeks her dead husband, while a nurse (Yonina Spijker) laments the destruction of beautiful Belgium. With the instrumentalists of Belgian baroque orchestra B’Rock deployed centre stage and a white-clad chorus (Cappella Amsterdam) mingling mildly with the action, director Paul Koek tells a Belgian tale of war, love and reconciliation.
Transparant boasts a two-decade history of inspired risk-taking and innovation. That Arthur falls short of their usual high standards owes more than a little to Verhelst’s verbose, overwrought text.
But under George Petrou’s direction, the orchestra’s precision, lush sound, unorthodox tempi and beautiful ornamentation make this 100-minute evening a musical treat. Four superb vocal soloists (Elizabeth Cragg, Reinoud van Mechelen, Konstantin Wolff and McFadden) add to the aural pleasure.
But there are too few notes, and too many words. Verhelst, Petrou and Koek have whittled Purcell’s score down to a few adapted excerpts. They curtail, elongate, and adapt extensively, adding home-made instruments that recall air raid sirens. Purcell’s gung-ho nationalism is replaced by melancholy. “Fairest Isle” becomes a lament, and “How Happy the Lovers” a dirge. It is grim fare.
The production is dedicated to Gerard Mortier, La Monnaie’s intendant who died recently. Mortier was always willing to risk failure in the hope that his artistic sparks would ignite. They often did but he was also responsible for some glorious flops. His legacy lives on. lamonnaie.be