Reimagining of King Arthur Proves Refreshing and Enjoyable

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Purcell, Peter Wiegold, and Martin Butler, King Arthur: Soloists, Notes Inégales, Academy Inégales, Chorale Inégales (chorus director: Mary Wiegold), Peter Wiegold (conductor), Wilton’s Music Hall, London, 14.6.2016. (MB)


Cupid – Iestyn Morris
Cold Genius – Alya Marquardt
John Dryden – Chris Meade
Master of Ceremonies – Murray Lachlan Young


May Kindred-Boothby (animation, design)
Murray Lachlan Young (original texts)
Apple & Biscuit Recordings (sound, videography)

The Spitalfields Festival and Notes Inégales promised a ‘reimagining of Purcell’s masterpiece like no other’, and that is certainly what we had, most refreshingly so. Indeed, given a considerable degree of improvisation, alongside a new realisation by Peter Wiegold and Martin Butler, what I heard may well have been considerably different from what the second evening’s audience would have encountered. One grows sick and tired of pointing out the absurdities of the ‘authenticke’ brigade; it does not, after all, take much to reduce their arguments to rubble. And yet, they continue to rule the performative roost, ever-vigilant lest an arbitrarily proscribed moment or two of vibrato transgress their internally, let alone externally, incoherent commandments of Werktreue. No such problems here, thank goodness! It is, admittedly, easier to follow one’s own inclinations in a Purcell semi-opera than almost anywhere else, for does not everyone? That is actually rather odd, for one quite clearly could perform King Arthur as Dryden – and Purcell, for that matter – ‘intended’, at least insofar as one can do that with anything, a considerable ‘insofar’ indeed; yet even the provisional wing of the Conventicle for Righteous Antiquarianism in Performance seems to cavil here, thereby reducing its ideological edifice to – well, to rubble once again.

Enough of that, anyway; they have still not listened to Theodor Adorno, so they are certainly not going to listen to me. What did we see and hear? If I say that I am not entirely sure, then that is not meant as an adverse criticism, but as an observation of the experimentalism of ‘work’ and ‘performance’. In this reimagining, following some words, a neo-pagan invocation of sorts, from the Master of Ceremonies, we begin with the celebrated Frost Scene, take one path through a new tale of love, its contents, and its discontents, with further commentary and participation both from the MC and from Mr Dryden himself. (‘Authentically’, however one might understand that word, no part is played by King Arthur; indeed, I can only recall one reference to him, and that is an introductory reference to his absence from what we are to see and hear.) The mini-drama having proved insufficiently exploratory, it starts again, ‘with feeling’, as our MC instructs the musical director, with help from faux-naïf animation. And so on – and once again. We experience two re-tellings, but are not necessarily any the wiser. However, rather like the musical numbers in an ‘original’ semi-opera, that does not necessarily matter, at least not in a linear sense. Something of the music-hall tradition, itself owing something to that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century past is with us – and that is before we even consider the site-specificity concerning the adorable Wilton’s Music Hall.

Musically, we hear a not entirely dissimilar mixture, which yet takes its own path(s). Does it cohere? Again, I am not sure that is the question. But this listener not only listened; he greatly enjoyed. Some music is performed relatively ‘straight’, at least for a while, although never unrelievedly so. No one would claim that King Arthur should always be done like this; that, after all, is the open-endedly performative point, or at least I think it is. Notes Inégales, created by Peter Wiegold and David Purser, is charmingly described as ‘devoted equally (or unequally) to improvisation as well as written music’. The players can also, as the biographical note claimed, swing. Here, its members (on electric guitar, percussion, double bass, taegŭm flute, trumpet, bassoon, and oboe) were joined by two guest players, Gamin (piri, taepyeongso, and saengwhang), and Maya Youssef (kanun), as well as Academy Inégales, ‘brought together by Club Inégales and the Institute of Composing for ten months’, on another variety of instruments: violin, Arabic violin, clarinets, percussion/musical saw, tuba, keyboards/electronics, guitar, percussion, vocals, keyboard/melodica, and tabla. Part of me tends toward the claim that the oft-claimed kinship between ‘early music’, whatever that might be, is in generally wildly-overstated, but here that did not seem to be the case. Again, there is no need for dogmatism, and every need for its banishment. We heard skilfully woven lines, an ever-changing array of sounds, a developing variation, if you like, that was far from bound to the thematic. If there were occasions when I felt that instrumental balances did not quite work, that was a small price to pay for such enjoyable and provocative musical invention.

For there was no doubting the quality of musical performance on offer. Likewise vocally: Iestyn Morris, whom I had last heard far too long ago in 2011 (Il ritorno d’Ulisse at ENO), revealed once again a sure, indeed thrilling, musico-dramatic touch. His range, like that of Cupid himself, is wider, more colourful than one might initially suspect; such, I think, was very much part of the drama and its retelling. Still more so might that be said of Alya Marquardt, a singer with a particular interest not only in improvisation but also in Iraqi music. Her Frost Scene involved genuinely surprising turns of the conventionally gendered screw, whilst her ‘concert’ singing proved not only the perfect foil for Morris’s countertenor (and haute contre), but a genuine source of ravishment in its mezzo-like depth (description as a soprano notwithstanding). Both singers are highly likeable stage-artists as well as consummate musicians.

More please, then: from them, from our instrumentalists and composers, and from the estimable chorus members, their excellence both individual and corporate. A small Purcellian choir, subtle yet full-blooded, proved just as capable of musical transformation as the acoustic and electronic instrumental sounds – and the ‘work’ itself. Peter Wiegold and Martin Butler have worked some wondrous, never-to-be-quite-repeated magic with Purcell here, as have the performers. Multicultural modernity is, not least in this part of East London, not so far from where I live, both the Purcellian past and the Purcellian future, truer to the spirit of the music and venue than almost any such performance I can recall.

Further good news, is that the performance was filmed. So watch, if not this space, then that of Club Inégales.

Mark Berry


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