Morris has made some of my favorite works. But this is not one of them. Here’s my review from Newsday:
Henry Purcell’s 1691 “King Arthur” wasn’t ever an opera, exactly. Proud of their theater tradition and suspicious of this Italian business of singing your way through a story, the 17th century English preferred the semi-opera, a play in “blank verse, adorn’d with scenes, machines, songs and dances,” as “King Arthur’s” author, John Dryden, put it.
The renowned choreographer Mark Morris accentuates this clunky construct even while jettisoning the spoken text: that is, two of the original four hours, along with the plot. “Rhymed couplets get kind of Dr. Seuss after a while,” he said at the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process show on Monday. Yes, they do. But he has simply substituted one sort of tiresome jangle for another.
With the help of fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi’s ostentatiously makeshift costumes and Adrianne Lobel’s elaborately low-tech set, Morris has framed the song-and-dance numbers with the postmodern conceit that we’re watching a rough take of the show.
“King Arthur” begins with a half-dozen performers stepping through a free-standing door to settle in a semicircle of folding chairs before a ghost light. Soon a dancer doubling as a stagehand whisks the light away. Self-consciously fussy on the way to being low-key, the production severs the thematic threads in Purcell’s gorgeous and various score that might have woven the night together.
Granted, the topics of the songs to which Morris is responding are all over the map – invoking everything from the British wool trade to the Saxon fighting spirit to seizing the randy moment. Purcell roams too, from an arty version of a drinking song to a sweet, sensual ode to England, “the fairest isle.”
The score isn’t just a survey of styles and moods, however. The composer transforms Dryden’s paean to British commerce and lust – “pleasure mix’d with profit” – into a tender and complex portrait of that ephemeral threshold between desire and love.
With Baroque specialist Jane Glover conducting, you can hear this moment in the deep rush of the choir and the muted plaintiveness that is Purcell’s most delicious emotional key. But you can’t see it.
Morris meticulously keys his dancers’ gestures to the libretto. When in the famous “Frost” scene, Cupid (the luxuriantly voiced Mhairi Lawson) sings, “In spite of the weather, I’ve brought you together,” the 16 dancers hug themselves at weather and their partners at together, a visual equivalent of the humpty-dumpty end rhymes Morris disdains. In fact, the choreographer excels at movement rhyme throughout: A fist raised to the mouth, then two fists in boxer position signal the Saxons “quaffing the juice that makes the Britons bold.” But these nifty correspondences only end up feeling like distractions from a larger harmony that’s never achieved.
KING ARTHUR. Score by Henry Purcell. Directed and choreographed by Mark Morris. Performed by the New York City Opera with the Mark Morris Dance Group. Through next Saturday at the State Theater, Lincoln Center. Tickets $16-$130. Call 212- 721-6500 or visit nycopera .com. Seen Wednesday.