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Nimbleness and Warmth

The Armonico Consort at the Buxton Festival,
reviewed by MIKE WHEELER


With their great musical set-pieces related only obliquely to the main action of the spoken parts, Purcell's semi-operas present huge staging challenges.

Tim Guthrie's production of King Arthur for the Armonico Consort (Buxton Opera House, Buxton, Derbyshire, UK, 9 July 2007) has gone for broke by ditching the original scenario altogether, along with several musical numbers. The remaining music is re-ordered to fit a two-act scenario set in the trenches of World War One, using a cast of just six singers (three soldiers, three nurses) and two trapeze artists (more of whom later). So, no magicians, no blind Emmeline; Arthur himself is present, not as a physical character but as an idea, a piece of folk memory.

Tim Guthrie acknowledges the influence of David Jones' book-length poem In Parenthesis (published in 1952), which came out of his experiences on the front line, excerpts from which provide the new spoken passages. Jones described the front as a 'place of enchantment'. This is where the trapeze artists, James Frith and Lisa Whitmore, come in, as they create their own kind of magic, performing some breathtaking slow-motion stunts high above the action.

So we watch our solders as they prepare for action. In Act One they are wounded and recover in hospital; Act 2 sees them preparing again to go over the top, enjoying the luxury of a hot steam bath, before finally going to their deaths. Songs about shepherds and rural harmony become charged with nostalgia. In this context, and especially after the battle, 'Fairest isle' becomes less of a celebration, more of a lament.

Most of the transferences to the new scenario work, but the treatment of the celebrated Frost Scene, with the soldiers coming in out of the snow to revel in their bath (a luxury they had been fantasising about in an earlier scene) is at odds with the sung text. The scene is prefaced by two of the nurses singing 'Two daughters of this aged stream' (in the original, a vision to try to lure Arthur away from his chosen path -- a separate scene altogether). 'Come, come, naked in for we are so', they sing -- they aren't, of course. The second soldier drags himself in from the cold singing the words originally allotted to the Cold Genius. Why would he plead 'let me freeze again to death?'

There are some striking stage pictures. In 'Hither, this way' (in the original, the spirit Phillidel tries to lead Arthur's troops to safety), the soldiers set off down the line with the six characters shining torches through the smoky darkness, to create a compelling image of confusion and bewilderment.

The singing is mostly fine, though the men -- Timothy Travers-Brown, Mark Wilde and Thomas Guthrie -- are occasionally underpowered compared with the women, Susan Gilmour-Bailey, Lorna James and Fiona Watkins (also the assistant director and choreographer). With Christopher Monks directing from the harpsichord, the Armonico Consort plays with both nimbleness and warmth.

The Consort are giving one more performance, again at Buxton, on 17 July 2007 at 1.30pm.

Copyright © 16 July 2007 Mike Wheeler, Derby UK




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