How to stage an opera once you've discarded its plot and title character - that's the conundrum Mark Morris faced in King Arthur, the latest collaboration between the American director, his dance group, and English National Opera. But once you've ditched the work's original raison d'être, why bother with it at all? To hear Purcell's glorious music is the answer, though to be frank, not all of it is equally ravishing. Were it to be presented in a conventional way - with or without Dryden's verse play - today's audiences would find much of it dull.
Enter Morris, heretic-in-chief and rogue outsider with the outsider's peculiarly astute take on the heart and soul of England. Englishness, as he sees it, is about muddle and making do, about stiff little ceremonies and village hall am dram and sturdy sopranos leading patriotic choruses. His version of Britannia's realm is a social and moral landscape that dithers between Puritanism and appetite, manners and mayhem; a culture that can maintain a tradition of rugged written poetry at the same time as a fertility rite that has grown men skipping round a pole flapping ribbons.
That Morris should finally have found a legitimate reason for introducing Morris dancing to opera is one of the more successful jokes in a show so stuffed with the things that you suspect a tongue lurking in every cheek. Hmm, yes, cheeks. As I'm sure I wasn't alone in noticing, it's dancers' bottoms that dominate the visual sphere - lean male bottoms in American Tan tights that give the owner the startling look of having forgotten his trousers, svelte female bottoms dressed to make us think they're men's; brash trackie bottoms paired with Jacobean doublet (because someone else has got the hose). The whole affair has the provisional air of a last-minute rehearsal for a village hall Christmas pageant.
It would be wrong to talk about the dance element in isolation, because in King Arthur (in contrast to Morris's previous ENO project) the director is batting for the opera, not his dance company, and he rightly thrusts the vocal soloists to the fore. His 18 dancers, for the most part, provide a kind of moving frieze behind, illustrating - often word for word and beat for beat - aspects of Dryden's lyrics. Crabbed old age, peasant toil, warrior strength, grinding lust - there's no verbal allusion that Morris deems unfit for movement and gesture.
Sometimes his imagination outruns him. Though there is wit in his excitable response to the soprano and chorus number "Come, Follow Me", a farcical dash in and out of dressing room doors, slammed plywood and thud of feet is distracting. Just occasionally - perhaps not often enough - he matches the beauty of a vocal line. Tenor James Gilchrist's loin-meltingly legato solo "And Love, they tell me, is a Dance of Hearts" is joined by a duet for two women so simple and tender that I longed for them to repeat it.
So what story does Morris think he's telling, since it's not about King Arthur? What emerges over the course of the evening is the oldest story of all: the conflict between the life of the intellect and life of the flesh, Apollo vs Dionysus, cold vs heat and the politics of repression and laissez-faire (a conflict particularly pertinent to Purcell's audience). There's no doubt which side the opera is on. "No Joys are above/ The Pleasures of Love" sing the chorus in Act IV. And it's the production's fulsome embodiment of this statement that justifies every excess.
Stories of all kinds were in abundance in the opening programme of the 10-day New Currents season (pictured) in Covent Garden's most intimate space. Tickets for The Clore Studio Upstairs are one of Opera House's few bargains. Just £10 puts you within spitting distance of a wide selection of professional dance. The current season is devoted to British-based artists drawing on performance traditions from around the globe: Trinidad, Japan, Vietnam and India in the case of the selection I saw.
Most startling in terms of virtuosity was Anh Ngoc Nguyen's duet for himself and Maggie Kwan, based on a Vietnamese folk legend about a family rift. A mother, trying to explain her husband's absence, tells their child that his father visits every evening in the form of her own shadow. Tragedy ensues when the child later refuses to recognise his father, and the father accuses his wife of infidelity. Anh and Kwan literally fly through the narrative, sharing the roles and signalling nightfall with the laying of a straw mat. Both dancers move with extreme speed and fluidity - often mimicking the action of the flicked mat.
Even more unexpected was Jacqui Chan's solo, inspired by an 11th-century Japanese romance. Chan's spoken delivery was beautifully modulated and clear. But it was her physical possession of Fragrant Orchid, a woman of mature years who longs to repeat an erotic experience she once had with a lothario, which drew her audience in. Tiny, fragile and kimono'd, it was Chan's body that expressed her hope, her joy and ultimately her despair, as she was forced to accept that her night of love had been forgotten, and that one person's fantastic sex is another's Diazepam.
New Currents (020 7304 4000) continues to 8 JulyReuse content