Friday, January 15, 2010

Fetchez la vache!

I don't know Purcell's King Arthur, but I was inspired to investigate because of Piers Burton-Page's scathing review in IRR of a new DVD of an "adaptation" of the work by Hervé Niquet and French comedians Corinne and Gilles Benizio.
King Arthur is a "semi-opera" with a libretto by John Dryden; J. A. Westrup describes the story as "a quaint mixture of historical legend and pure fantasy". The main roles are spoken, and the singing is done by secondary characters. The action has nothing to do with the round table but is based on the conflict between the Britons and the Saxons. According to Wikipedia, it may be an allegory for the "Exclusion crisis" over who would succeed Charles II.
I notice you're not chuckling over the comic possibilities for such a work. Add in an apparent musical high point, described by Westrup as "the scene of the frozen wastes, from which the Cold Genius rises grimly like Erda in the Ring", distinguished by "the extraordinary suggestiveness of the harmonic progressions, from the strange sliding semitones of the instrumental introduction to the discordant melancholy of the Cold Genius's concluding words" [Let me, let me, let me freeze again/Let me, let me freeze again to death/Let me, let me, let me freeze again to death] and, let's face it, the words "French comedians" up above start to stick out like a sore thumb.

This self-produced recording by Belgian basso profundo Paul Gerimon does seem to match that description of the Cold Scene:

Spooky, huh? Well, you probably have some idea of what's coming. Here's Joao Fernandes (baritone) in the new French version. He plays King Arthur (yes, they've rewritten the plot that much)...

While we're at it, here's a version for penguin, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt in Salzburg...

I haven't seen either a "proper" King Arthur or any of the French version that isn't on YouTube, so it's not for me to say whether Piers Burton-Page is right to use phrases like "undisciplined anarchy-cum-smugness", "this French travesty", or "hideous embarrassment". Sure, the scene with the two skiiers (that's the directors, of course) is excruciating, and the rest of the clips look like there must be an electric donkey-bottom biter in there somewhere, but as a whole maybe it was a fun night out.
What intrigues me is how much you can rewrite the plot of an opera (or semi-opera) and still be allowed to claim it's the same work. Those YouTube clips, which come from Le Concert Spirituel, say they're excerpts from Henry Purcell's King Arthur. But are they, really? Would I have been happy to go in expecting a Restoration spectacular, or a modern simulacrum thereof, and get this instead?
The other issue this raises is, to what extent should comedians be allowed to take over operas? I suggest the best way to find out would be to put Jimmy Carr in Il trovatore and see what happens.

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