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‘King Arthur’s clown fable

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Those classical music buffs in search of narrative coherence, high drama and spiritual uplift no doubt found themselves at San Francisco Opera’s “Rigoletto” Saturday night. The rest of us nutcases were at Mark Morris’ “King Arthur” at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.

This American premiere of a co-production between Cal Performances and Britain’s English National Opera, purported to be the “semi-opera” written by Henry Purcell and John Dryden in 1691.

A “semi-opera” was a 17th century concoction of a spoken play, stage inventions, lavish costumes, sets and, incidentally, singing. Morris jettisoned Dryden’s boring play but retained Purcell’s 90 minutes of musical bliss.

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The original “King Arthur” (music and text) has nothing to do with “Camelot” as we know it, but is a succession of musical masques, sacred and profane. Since Morris never met a non-sequitur he didn’t like, he simply takes Dryden’s sung text and makes merry with it.

He uses ordinary props — folding chairs; a couple of moving platforms — decorating them with Adrianne Lobel’s and Isaac Mizrahi’s colorful, kitschy sets and costumes. We were also treated to bellicose Saxon and Briton warriors in paper armor; drunken plowboys; couples cheerfully fornicating in Morris’ erotic but tasteful manner; and a delirious segmentfeaturing a giraffe and a duck nibbling the scenery.

As always with Morris, the “glue” that holds the evening together is the music. Purcell’s score is sheer delight: short, tonal melodies; lots of ensemble singing; choral and orchestral gems.

Philharmonia Baroque, conducted by Jane Glover, sounded smart and juicy. Marika Kuzma’s UC Chamber Chorus sang with lusty enthusiasm from the pit. And the British singers, especially the glorious Lawson, entered so happily into Morris’ silliness that you could barely tell them from his fabulous dancers.

I’m sure some will be offended by Morris’ rude send-ups of nationalism, power and British sex, yet they are out of luck. Mark Morris’ “King Arthur” rules.



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