In the Lowell House Dining Hall
King Arthur does not conform to common conceptions of opera, Baroque or modern, Really a heroic drama, it employs Purcell's music only at intervals, with the plot advanced by spoken poetry rather than the conventional recitative. Music serves for supernatural beings, battle and drinking songs, and ballet sequences, while most of the principal characters have speaking roles only.
Despite a few stirring moments and occasionally, beautiful imagery, Dryden's poem is generally silly and would be a woeful bore with anything but skillful reading. Director Peter Judd did not make the mistake of some productions and let the performers burlesque the text; rather, each recited the flowery lines as if they were the Twenty-Third Psalm, and the results were doubly hilarious. Among numerous principals, Nora Sayre transformed the mealy-mouthed Emmeline into a vivacious heroine, and Thomas Merriam as Merlin romped through the comic role of "a famous Inchanter."
The music of King Arthur is fortunately divided among many characters, so that no single individual bears the vocal burden. The singers performed with spirit and clean diction, but after all, Purcell is not Arthur Sullivan and some voices sounded uncomfortably strained, However, Elizabeth Kalkhurst sang with beautiful tone as Cupid, while two little boys--Michael DeBruyn and Richard Wulf--stopped the show with their shepherds' ditty.
Lowell Houses was fortunate to have the services of Howard Brown as choral director. He turned what has sometimes in the past been a rather slipshod group into an ensemble of the highest caliber--always in tune, enunciating clearly, precise in all entrances. And conductor Michael Greenebaum stirred the orchestra to level of performance distinguished by its accuracy and warmth.
Elizabeth Johnston's costumes are always colorful, with dancers dressed exquisitely for the divertissements.
Apart from Mary Arnold's graceful and appropriate choreography, staging is the weakest link in the production, Mr. Judd moves his players with clarity and pace, but--especially in Act I--there is too much background fidgeting to provide "action" for some longer numbers.
Despite these slight flaws, King Arthur offers tonight and tomorrow night into the same charm Downes found in 1691:
". . . excellently adorned with scenes and machines: the musical part set by the famous Mr. Henry Purcell . . . the play and musick pleas'd the Court and City, and being well perform'd 'twas very gainful to the company."