Anyone expecting the Knights of the Round Table in director/choreographer Mark Morris’ version of Henry Purcell’s 1691 “King Arthur” at New York City Opera is in for a disappointment. Morris, who claims to dislike John Dryden’s original libretto, dispenses with spoken dialogue and plot, giving us what he terms “a sort of vaudeville.” But vaudeville implies a lively evening’s entertainment, and in that respect Morris’ take on “King Arthur” achieves only middling success.
What Morris delivers is a grab-bag of half-baked comic ideas that must have seemed awfully funny in conception. In actual performance, their effect is hit-and-miss; mostly miss. The unifying concepts that made the director’s City Opera “Platee” memorable a few seasons back are not in evidence here.
In interviews, Morris has said he wanted this production to have the “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show” quality of ragtag impromptu theatrics. It does, but that doesn’t make for a particularly compelling evening. Even coming in under two hours, including intermission, this seems like a long sit.
Purcell’s original “Dramatick Opera” (in reality a blend of dance, song and spoken passages) dealt with Arthur’s quest to unify Britain and find his betrothed, the abducted Princess Emmeline. Arthur does not appear at all in the Morris version; he is merely represented by a crown.
Morris has the action taking place on an actual stage, almost like an early rehearsal, which leaves set designer Adrianne Lobel little to work with but a few red curtains and a brick-wall backdrop. Various disconnected scenes are meant to evoke such settings as a ship at sea, a wintry forest and an island, but this comes through more in Isaac Mizrahi’s eclectic costumes — firefly wings and antennae for a soprano in the forest; a uniform for the ship’s captain; some endearing animal getups for the island. Many of the better effects, including an impressive maypole-dance sequence, are back-loaded into the final scenes.
Morris fans will appreciate the tirelessly energetic efforts of his dance company, which is the true focus of this staging. There’s far more dancing than singing in these two hours, with the chorus even banished to the orchestra pit.
But Purcell’s score is handled with great sensitivity by early-music specialist Jane Glover. Solo vocal duties are assumed by seven versatile singers who all play multiple roles in the various sketch-like scenes.
Standouts include two singers rapidly becoming local favorites. Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs unfurls elegant, cavernous tones, and is amusing as the ship’s captain and as the Cold Genius of Winter, trapped in a refrigerator before being freed by Cupid. Soprano Sarah Jane McMahon, last season’s sly Mabel in City Opera’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” wields her bright voice and clear diction with great style, radiating real star presence.
Alexander Tall, Iestyn Davies, Steven Sanders, Heidi Stober and Mhairi Lawson all sing proficiently but have trouble putting across Dryden’s admittedly heavy text.
Not that it matters much. By dispensing with any coherent plot line, Morris has already seen to it there’s no emotional investment for the audience.