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<<  -- 3 --  Roderic Dunnett    A DEEPER PLANE


Parker's translation from innocent Arthur (Pt 1) to mother-perverted Mordred offer him a few moments to flower; and into the final set-pieces -- Lancelot versus Gawain, and (fatally) Arthur against Mordred (Mordred slays his father-uncle with a coward's blow, amid a faked reconciliation) -- Bintley injected a growing intensity; while Bishop Bedwin (David Morse) added some amiable (again Helpmannesque) clowning. The ensemble work, despite a beautiful (if slightly prim) set piece in Act I, seemed arguably less inspired that in Part I (where the young knights' dance, for instance, was unforgettable).

McCabe's music, at best, feels on a deeper plane. Where Bintley probes psychology lightly, McCabe seems to burrow, and winkle out hidden layers. This feels like a consistently well-judged score, professionally served-up (a measure of the lucidity of design in Bintley's scene-by-scene timed scenario, as well as the calibre of their collaboration). Despite much alluring orchestration -- the score splendidly delivered, finely honed in all its dark and glinting contrasts, by Barry Wordsworth's orchestral players -- McCabe's detail seemed always relevant, never merely effect : folksy violins in the group dance, then oboe and flute over warm, thickening string textures, ceding to a gorgeously played, rapt clarinet line in the Act I Lancelot-Guinevere duet; mysterious, murky upper strings as the fatal apple finds it way to the doomed Gareth; nervy harp runs, soft whining trumpet and leering saxophone, yielding to paired clarinets and flute roulades over ominous brass for Morgan's first kiss on Merlin, and an unpleasant saxophone wind-up (a vivid commentary that told all without one even having to watch the stage action, rather less impressive than Morgan's seduction of Arthur in Act I); the Queen's chaconne-like dance; then a seqential woodwind figure (oboe, clarinet, bassoon), picked up by trumpets for Gareth's mortal struggle, and mocking trumpets and clarinets (in what feels like a sudden retrograde), applied like a terrifying brake.

Joseph Cipolla as Merlin and Leticia Müller as Morgan Le Fay in the Birmingham Royal Ballet 2001 production of 'Arthur Part II, Le Morte d'Arthur'

Perhaps nowhere are McCabe's fingerprints more effective than in Morgan's second triumph over Merlin (after, arguably, from the dramatic point of view, one kiss too many), shortly before Mordred finally asserts himself to seize the throne. McCabe produces magical effects by merging what sounded to my ear like viola, cor anglais and saxophone; then conjoins low saxophone with horns (and trombones?), and moves on to strings alone, to produce a funereal sound as eerie as Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (his most overtly proclaimed source); then launches an arching slow drum pattern (Bartók again) of unnerving horror, a foretaste of the battle to come.

Somehow McCabe's score always seems to be on the ball, and this Bartókian undercurrent, more often than not, suggests personality, shifting mood, idyllic and perverted psychology, human consistency and inconsistency, more effectively than the histrionic, slightly campy visuals. Furnishing a secure, seamless underlay is, of course, the composer's role. But for a second time McCabe's Arthur score does Bintley and Birmingham proud.

Copyright © 27 May 2001 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK








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