By Richard S. Ginell
LONG BEACH, Calif. – Always ahead of the curve, Long Beach Opera was there at the beginning when nervy stage directors started retrofitting Baroque operas in modern times and dress. Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea was their first such vehicle, back in 1984, and after creating a sensation with that, they’ve been at it periodically ever since.
So when LBO tried to transform Purcell’s 1691-vintage so-called semi-opera King Arthur into what they characterized as a “re-imagination” at the Beverly O’Neill Theatre (on Jan. 12), they were following their own tradition by breaking with tradition. Only this time, it didn’t really work.
Not that they shouldn’t have tried, for the original King Arthur is a bit of a mess, in that the musical numbers and John Dryden’s play seem to be happening on separate planes. Moreover, Purcell’s title character is not the popular, idealized image of Arthur – as in Camelot, the sword in the stone, the Knights of the Round Table and all that – but instead the 5th- or 6th-century warrior who fought the Saxons and built an empire in the British Isles, Gaul, and the Nordic lands. We don’t even know for sure whether Arthur existed; the scholarly consensus these days rather doubts it. So with King Arthur being whatever anyone wants to believe, that’s a legitimate license to re-invent him anew.
Long Beach Opera’s do-everything artistic director Andreas Mitisek – acting as stage director, conductor, video and production designer – took it from there, in tandem with the Chicano theatre group Culture Clash, who wrote a new script. Here is the scenario that they came up with, and I quote:
“King Arthur returns as a superhero who fights a mysterious, supernatural force that is attacking Earth and threatening life as we know it. Will he be able to save humanity? How will he stand up against a race of alien shape-shifters who desire to conquer the galaxy? King Arthur’s experience as a knight comes in handy as he rescues his beloved princess Emmeline.”
That’s what the advance publicity said the production was supposed to be about. Except that it wasn’t. Either this was a bait-and-switch, or something had changed in the conception on the way to the stage.
What we got was a portly schlub named Arthur King (get it?), a patient at the Camelot O’Neill Behavioral Resilience Unit who was being “treated” for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as well as xenophobia and “Alternative Facts Disorder” presumably brought upon by watching too much Fox News. This patient has an attractive nurse named Gwen E. Veer (get it?) dressed in an outfit that takes its cues from Wonder Woman, and she is having a long-running affair with Doc Oswald (as in Oswald, the Saxon King of Kent), the clinic’s doctor. Also in the unit is Lance E. Lott (get it?), cast as a countertenor. Neither Guinevere nor Lancelot are in Purcell’s opera; Merlin is, but Merlin’s not in this LBO production. No Emmeline either.
King is consumed with conspiracy theories, upset with what he perceives as the “invasion” of alien shape-shifters into this country. He also seems to have an unrequited thing for his nurse (“She would make a great fourth wife,” he says). He pretends at one point that he is King Arthur, as opposed to Arthur King, and he and the others simulate battles with alien hordes via tiny hand-held action figures. Comic book projections and captions are seen on a scrim, behind which L.A.’s expert period-instrument band Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra toils away at Purcell’s score, now scrambled into a new sequence. At various points in the show, each cast member gets a YouTube-style autobiographical video in which they ramble on about their character’s thoughts, desires, obsessions, and such.
All of this shtick eventually became tiresome over the uninterrupted 104-minute haul. But then toward the end, Mitisek threw a metaphorical switch and suddenly things got serious. King donned VR goggles and lo, the space aliens became real, suffering, undocumented immigrants at the U.S./Mexican border as Purcell’s music mourned in the background. Next thing you know (spoiler alert), King’s at a lectern clad in a suit with a Trump-style red tie, resigning as the head of the Department of Homeland Security. That message at least was clear, reading the deep-blue-state audience well. But did we need all of the arch silliness that preceded it?
As usual, though, LBO matched its theatrical tomfoolery with exquisitely disciplined music-making. Led by Mitisek, the ten-member Musica Angelica played the reshuffled score with lively resilient feeling for rhythm and few of the abrasive performance tics that plague other period instrument bands. A multitude of singing and spoken roles were compressed down to just four singing actors. Soprano Jamie Chamberlin sang Gwen E. Veer, with the wild warble in her voice early on quickly tamed in time for some impressive flights in her upper range. Tenor Marc Molomot did what he could with the unsympathetic character of Arthur King, bass-baritone Cedric Berry was a sturdy Oswald, countertenor Darryl Taylor a fluid Lance E. Lott.
Even though Purcell’s music was scattered and hammered into the storyline, sometimes seemingly without regard as to whether it would fit, it wasn’t much different from the way Purcell’s score operates vis-à-vis Dryden’s spoken text. Just as one would expect, Mitisek and company came up with some new lyrics as well. As is often the case in the mad, mad world of Regietheatre, the music stood tall while the rest was up for grabs.
Long Beach Opera’s King Arthur returns for two more performances on Saturday, Jan. 18, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 19, at 2:30 p.m. For details, go here.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.