Opera Review: KING ARTHUR (Long Beach Opera)

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by Tony Frankel on January 13, 2020

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles

KING ARTHUR DETHRONED

If you’re a hardcore Henry Purcell fan, don’t expect anything resembling his original 1691 semi-opera, King Arthur, in Long Beach Opera’s production, which opened yesterday, Jan. 12, at the Beverly O’Neill. (A semi-opera is an unusual form of early opera that was half-sung and half-spoken.) Even in John Dryden’s libretto, there is little of Sir Thomas Malory’s 1485 Excalibur legend, Le Morte d’Arthur, which was popularized by T.H. White in his book The Once and Future King, which was the basis for Camelot, The Sword in the Stone, and much more.

In the original, Arthur, king of the Britons, and Oswald, Saxon king of Kent, are rivals for the hand of Emmeline, the blind daughter of the Duke of Cornwall. Many battles later, Emmeline and her attendant Matilda are captured by Oswald. Arthur captures the spirit Grimbald and breaks the enchantments that are set against him. In the last of five short acts, the opposing armies fight: Arthur meets Oswald in hand-to-hand conflict and, disarming him, offers him his freedom. Emmeline (whose sight has been restored) and Arthur are united. Merlin banishes the winds and Britain’s island rises from the sea.

In LBO’s cheeky but lopsided new version written by Culture Clash (Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza), the only thing left is Purcell’s music and a character who dreams he is King Arthur. Director/designer Andreas Mitisek’s show sits in a strange middle ground between the The British Worthy and modern-day issues. Clever ideas abound, but the mash-up of a dream, a mental care facility, super heroes, sex, and modern politics collapses upon itself. And while some of the new dialogue can be wickedly funny, other parts are adolescent (that’s Culture Clash for you!), and many of the lyrics seem to be copying the style of Olde English, which already make for a very dull blade. Sometimes, the new lyrics defeated the Baroque melisma by gagging the singers with difficult to sustain vowels, often with an unforgiving consonant lurking at the end. 85 minutes here seem much much longer.

Arthur King (tenor Marc Molomot) falls asleep listening to news about Trump’s ridiculous wall. He awakens in a hospital run by Doc Oswald (bass-baritone Cedric Berry) and his buxom, optimistic nurse Gwen E. Veer (Jamie Chamberlin), who are both treating him for his delusions of being a superhero. Also under supervision is Lance E. Lott (countertenor Darryl Taylor). The characters are swell, and the acting serviceable on light designer Daniel Weingarten’s comic-book stage floor, but the higgledy-piggledy plot is oddly difficult to follow until all becomes clear at the end — and since we’re not always on board, the affair is somewhat soporific.

Purcell’s seven characters and chorus have been trimmed to just these four actors, all of whom have proved their worth before in LBO shows (Chamberlin astounded as Cunegonde in Candide and Berry nailed the evil Secret Police Agent in The Consul). Here, although the actors are not required to do much singing, Taylor and Molomot sounded like they needed a rest, and Berry — rip-roaring in the bass — struggled a few times with the baritone. Only that colorful coloratura Chamberlin sounded sure and strong. The best musical moment was the ultimate trio over the bed — precise and note perfect. The real winners musically were the players of the astounding Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra under the leadership of Ilia Korol. Otherwise, I’m afraid even Merlin can’t save this one.

photos by Keith Ian Polakoff

King Arthur
Long Beach Opera
Beverly O’Neill Theater
300 Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach
ends on January 19, 2020
for tickets, call 562.470.7464 or visit LBO

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