A glorious night of pre-opera

King Arthur: Henry Purcell, Theatre Royal Bury St EdmundsMorris dancers with staves and rag-decorated tunics of red, black and white stamp and dance their way across the unpainted hardboard box of a stage.

King Arthur: Henry Purcell, Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

Morris dancers with staves and rag-decorated tunics of red, black and white stamp and dance their way across the unpainted hardboard box of a stage.

The formally dressed Baroque orchestra may be ready for the overture in the pit and on the sides of the stage, but you know you're in for a night at the opera with a difference. That's because we're in the masque, myth, spectacle and fantasy world of the English pre-opera phase of English music theatre.

When King Arthur was first performed in 1692 it was described as being by John Dryden (who wrote the words) rather than by Henry Purcell (who wrote the music). This in itself illustrates the very individual and fledging England opera tradition - a bit like attributing Peter Grimes to George Crabbe rather than Benjamin Britten.


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Following the contemporary convention, the main characters don't sing but speak their words accompanied by the music, which was then regarded rather as secondary ornamentation.

The singing is done by spirits, nymphs, shepherd folk and sirens - the soloists are members of Capella Angelica - who dance and deliver Purcell's glorious music in various allegorical extravaganzas. In Colin Blumenau's production they use ladders, misty vapours, coloured drapes and assorted flaps in the hardboard. At these they can unexpectedly appear in order to sing, make an entrance or shrink away from sight.

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There are highly impressive set pieces - a battle, a chilling human sacrifice scene, an act of combat and, most wonderfully, a self-contained masque in which we are shown the warmth of Love thawing a frozen heart. The music here shivers rhythmically with the cold, snowflakes falling on the white drapes while teeth chatter.

This is a German British co-production which is also being seen in Germany .The singers, Capella Angelica, and the orchestra, the Lautten Compagney both under the direction of Wolfgang Katschner are magnificently crisp, clear, disciplined and capture superbly the Purcellian melodic brightness .

The final sequence has a flag waving, Last night of the Proms, feel about it. Britons and Saxons come together in a mood of reconciliation and celebration. They praise the home country and St George (St George, mark you - not St Edmund) and give a rousing rendering of Fairest Isle.

It's a fun show - full of variety, with well played and sung music, goodies and baddies, spectacle and humour, inventive staging and elegant performances. It's a pity it couldn't have been on for longer than three days.

Ivan Howlett

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