As exquisite as many of music's most sensual operas, madrigals and songs are, no composer has celebrated the delights of physical intimacy as deliciously, as frequently, or as openly as Henry Purcell. In The Fairy Queen ("One charming night"), in Hail, Bright Cecilia ("In vain the am'rous flute"), in his locker-room catches, his passionate songs, and in Acts III and IV of King Arthur, Purcell is the sybarite's composer: a poet of racing pulses, dilated pupils, languid limbs, and loosened corsets. To focus on this aspect of his work to the exclusion of all others is, however, a mistake.
Stripped of Dryden's dialogue, Mark Morris's production of King Arthur is a series of disconnected tableaux set in an enchanted rehearsal space. So intrinsic is dance to operas of this period that it is essential to have a good choreographer at hand. Unfortunately, several moments in this sometimes lovely, sometimes crass production - most particularly the parody of Les Sylphides-style classical ballet in Act V - have more to do with Morris's reputation as an iconoclast than they do with Purcell's subtle creation.
Setting aside the abscence of any narrative, the hieroglyphics of Act I's bellicose rituals, the torchlit forest of dressing-room doors in Act II, and the bisexual deliquescence of Act III's Arcadian love-in work well with Purcell's text-sensitive score. The appearance of the Cold Genius in a fridge - quickly defrosted by Mhairi Lawson's Grayson Perry-ish Cupid - is a cute idea, as is the striptease shimmer of Act IV's sinuous duet "Two daughters of this aged stream", though Isaac Mizrahi's costumes favour dancers' bodies more than they do the curvier singers.
So far, so saucy. But what of Act V? This glorious vision of a pacific, rational Britain - written, it should be said, after a period of acute political uncertainty - is mistakenly lampooned as a pageant of Last Night of the Proms-ish triumphalism, with Carry On naval uniforms, Ginger Spice mini-dresses, paper aeroplanes, Edwardian toffs, and, most bizarrely, a dancing giraffe. "Serene and calm"? I don't think so. Had Morris cared to examine the lyrics of "Fairest Isle", sung here with immense poise by Lawson, he would have discovered that Purcell and Dryden were as anti-war as any Haight-Ashbury hippie. Instead, he mocks their aspirations for a peaceful, equitable state, and disrupts the blissful chaconne with caller's cries of "Do-si-do!"
King Arthur is a piñata of a production: bright, sweet and utterly hollow. Musically, it has more depth. Though Jane Glover plays down the French influence on Purcell's score - there is but a smidgen of inégale to be heard - she has drawn phrasing from the chorus and orchestra that is more stylish than any of English National Opera's previous experiments in early opera. The shivering strings in the Cold Genius prelude - extrapolated from Lully's Isis - are superb, the arias smoothly sculpted, the great passacaglia of Act IV beautifully unfolded through the sensitive singing of Gillian Keith, Elizabeth Watts, Iestyn Davies, James Gilchrist, William Berger, and Andrew Foster-Williams. I could have done with a little more personality from the harpsichord, and surely two theorbos would be better than one, but the musical performance has a sincerity and grace that Morris's bad-boy staging sorely lacks.
The dearth of French accents in Glover's Purcell was echoed on stage in Jean Claude Auvray's double-bill of L'heure espagnole and L'enfant et les sortilèges for the Royal College of Music's Benjamin Britten International Opera School. Diction aside, and French is admittedly harder than Italian or German, Ravel's fantastical masterpieces proved to be ideal showcases for the young singers.
Among two strong casts, Pumeza Matshikiza's long-limbed, sexually rapacious, copper-voiced Concepción was outstanding. So too was Ben Johnson as the cuckolded Torquemada, the ranting L'Arithmétique and La Rainette. (Character-tenors are gold-dust, and he has the makings of another Fouchécourt.) Though Auvray lost momentum in L'enfant - exiting his singers too early and having their replacements enter too late - I loved Patricia Helen Orr's whingeing brat. Of the characters dreamed up in his/her nightmare, Simon Lobelson's L'Horloge, Alistair Digges and Stephanie Lewis's dancing crockery, and Kim Sheehan's La Feu were particularly well drawn.
Almeida Opera's annual season opened this week with Atélier Lyrique's production of Xavier Dayer's Les Aveugles. I went alone, having been unable to persuade anyone to accompany me to a word-for-word setting of Maeterlinck's symbolist drama, written by a former student of Brian Ferneyhough, and performed by a cast drawn from the young artists programme of Opéra National de Paris. Fair enough. I was dreading it too.
I needn't have. Though Dayer's music occasionally has something of that two- ferrets-in-a-paper-bag New Complexity quality, there is a simplicity to his word-setting that is quite unlike Ferneyhough's, a talent for pictorial writing, and an admirable plainness of structure. Les Aveugles is scored for 12 solo voices - some highly individuated, others enigmatic in plaintively or fiercely dissonant trios or duos - and a quintet of flute, cello, clarinet, guitar and percussion that conjures a soundworld more varied and suggestive than could be imagined from so small an orchestra.
For a "static drama" a lot happens in this opera: blame, fear, recrimination, and the formation and dissolution of alliances. Marc Paquien's simple, elegant staging - thankfully performed without the dead priest - dressed the cast in bridal whites, and conveyed the violence of their emotions well. Guillaume Tournaire's conducting was of an exceptionally high quality. As was the singing, proving that contemporary repertoire need not necessarily be the province of less lyrical voices. It feels unfair to single anyone out from such a carefully crafted ensemble piece, but special mention should go to Marie-Adeline Henry, Jason S Bridges, and Igor Gnidii.
'King Arthur' (0870 145 1700) to July 8Reuse content