Itís not everyday that a critic experiences her own personal pre-production serenade in the form of a close-harmony Renaissance chanson. A bribe? Or a warning? The French ensemble Les Grooms have a distinctive way with operatic classics (The Tragic Flute and The Threepenny Ring Cycle) so this isnít a straight-forward staging of the semi-opera King Arthur by Purcell and Dryden.
The group began as a brass band in 1984 and have acquired theatrical as well as musical skills. A spoken theatre equivalent might be The Reduced Shakespeare Company; less a matter of highlights than of condensing. The music is allowed to make its own impact and is sung properly; the orchestration is adapted (I don’t think that would have worried Purcell) and the action whirls us through the plot in less than one hour’s playing time.
Dryden’s villains – the heathen king Oswold and his sorcerer Osmond – are conflated into one baritone singer-actor who also does very well by the Cold Genius shivering aria. I can’t tell you who plays what; that information is not divulged – though it might surface at the London performances scheduled for 13 and 14 August.
We also lose Merlin, all the assorted spirits, soldiers and nymphs to retain just one token and rather dozy shepherd (amusingly doubled by the counter-tenor Arthur) upon whom bees exact revenge for his too-liberal use of a pesticide spray. “Fairest isle” is probably the best-known aria but the Emeline makes little of it. On the other hand, the brass and woodwind playing is exemplary.
Apart from the three main characters, the costumes are stylised bellboy ones with considerable use of improvised accessories. There’s minimal scenery but a welter of effects and illusions, including using the blind Emeline in a cod stage magic piece of trickery. Entrances and exits are through the audience, members of which are lured into lending items of clothing and taking part in the final dance.
The players are Macha Lemaître, Danielle Cabasso, Damien Ferrante, Jacques Auffray, Christophe Rappaport, Antoine Rosset, Bruno Travert, Serge Serafini and Etienne Grébot. The director is Oleg Kulik.
Les Grooms at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival
- Anne Morley-Priestman