"Fairest Isle" must surely be the sweetest, most sensual address ever made to a country--an anthem to Britain as lover. "Your hay it is mow'd" could readily be adapted as a song to egg on drunken soccer louts. And, some three centuries after it was written, the arresting so-called "shivering" aria helped inspire Michael Nyman to create the whole hip school of bouncy British minimalism. All of these come from the music that Henry Purcell contributed to John Dryden's play "King Arthur or the British Worthy." The music lives on--with help. The play doesn't. Or at least not until William Christie got his hands on it.
In a rare visit to the West with his French early music organization, Les Arts Florissants, Christie appeared Tuesday night at, of all places, the Santa Ana High School Auditorium, to give us a new and remarkable look at the "British worthy." Five years ago, Christie (with the collaboration of British director Graham Vick) produced a lavish modern staging of the full "King Arthur" in France and England and made a great recording of the music for Erato. But for the concluding event of the Eclectic Orange Festival mounted by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, Christie brought what he calls his busker's version of "King Arthur."
This traveling "Arthur" relies on nine singers who function as both soloists and chorus, and an orchestra of 20 period instrumentalists, which Christie conducts from the harpsichord. Dryden's drama has been condensed into a dramatic narration for two actors by Jeremy Sams. Ana Yepes contributed a bit of choreography for two dancers, along with simple but effective movement for the singers.
It is a marvelous entertainment, in some ways even an improvement over the big show, necessity here being the mother of postmodern invention. One misses the grandeur of large musical forces and the stellar singing--Christie trains singers brilliantly but tends to lose them rather quickly. But the vocalists on this tour all looked just out of conservatory, were bright-voiced, excellent Baroque stylists and fluid, convincing actors.
The full Dryden-Purcell "King Arthur" can seem, for modern theater audiences, strangely preposterous. The play is one kind of fantasy on Arthurian legend, based upon the Britons' battle with the Saxons. The music (and there is about an hour-and-a-half's worth) conjures up a different kind of fantasy altogether. These lyric interludes include mythological battle cries, visions of magical realms with frolicking shepherds and nymphs, the amazing masque in the cold realm depicting the power of love to thaw frozen people, and the final victorious pageant in which Britannia rises from the stormy sea and fishermen sit at her feet to sing her praises.
The two actors, Satara Lester and Patrick Cremin, were a virtuoso duo who morphed themselves between narrator and character (enacting the roles of Arthur and his beloved, the blind Emmeline). Of the singers, the one who stood out the most was the soprano, Gaelle Mechaly, who, in the roles of Cupid (thawing the Cold Genius) and Honour had the dramatic appeal of a gamin young actress from a French New Wave film and who sang with a strong, pure, sure voice.
But the hero of all was Christie. He is a curious figure on stage. He cues the orchestra to begin but then rarely looks up from his keyboard--his back to the stage. Mostly he seems lost in, transfixed with, the music (he not only mouthed to himself all the words of songs and choruses but the actors' lines as well). If an audience member breaks his concentration with cough or rustle, he sharply turns and glares.
And yet however much he seems in his own world, he makes that world ours. There is never a doubt that this musical Prospero controls absolutely everything, down to the smallest interpretive detail. And there is no doubt that the astonishing vividness of the music's presentation is all his doing. There was more than one kind of magic addressed on this splendid occasion.