WORKS: King Arthur
PERFORMER: Ana Maria Labin, Chantal Santon-Jeffery, Mélodie Ruvio, Mathias Vidal, Marc Mauillon, João Fernandes; Concert Spiritual Chorus & Orchestra/Hervé Niquet dir. Corinne & Gilles Benizio (Montpellier, 2009)
CATALOGUE NO: GVD 921619 (NTSC system; DTS 5.0; 16:9 picture format)
Ah, les ros-bifs! Forever drinking. Forever fighting. Forever clowning around and, for one magical period during the reign of Charles II, writing music to make a Frenchman swoon. Directed by French comedy duo Corinne and Gilles Benizio (aka Shirley et Dino), conductor Hervé Niquet’s knockabout rewrite of King Arthur is as much a tribute to Monty Python as it is to Henry Purcell.
Purists beware. This is a different isle to that celebrated in John Dryden’s libretto: a place of dancing monks (tenors Mathias Vidal and Marc Mauillon), libidinous battleaxes (sopranos Ana Maria Labin and Chantal Santon-Jeffrey), and a hero (bass João Fernandes) who moves from Holy Grail slapstick to leather-clad Russell Brand hip-swivelling.
As Glyndebourne’s Fairy Queen revealed, the masque is a cumbersome beast, long on words, short on music. Here Dryden’s verse is replaced by skits in which Niquet and Gilles Benizio banter and sing, accompanied by Le Concert Spirituel. In the Lully-influenced Cold Genius scene, Cupid’s music (divided between two sopranos) is interrupted by Norwegian cross-country skiers.
The chorus, meanwhile, do as the Brits do in France, displaying bad table-manners in Act V’s on-stage BBQ. Those with a penchant for cabaret will be tickled by Niquet’s performance of ‘On a l’béguin pour Célestin’, though the Purcell is rendered with equal affection.
In the bonus feature, Montpellier’s artistic director admits that his first reaction was ‘Poor Purcell!’ But the laughter of the audience is the best review and it is hard to imagine that England’s wittiest composer would have disapproved. Anna Picard