- Performing King Arthur
At the founding of Toronto Masque Theatre in May, 2003, we made it an immediate priority to produce the five major works of music theatre by the great seventeenth-century English composer Henry Purcell. These were the four “semi-operas” (Dioclesian, The Fairy Queen, The Indian Queen, and King Arthur), and the “opera/masque” Dido and Aeneas. We knew we wanted to produce one each year and to delve into the challenges and magic of the multi-disciplinary baroque “masque,” to illustrate the strength and beauty of Purcell’s music when placed in theatrical context. We were also confident in Purcell’s genius, not only as a first-rate composer, but as a composer with a theatrical flair whose works were eminently stage-worthy. What was not as clear—and ultimately became our biggest challenge—was how a production could reconcile disparate performance elements, retain a sense of balance, and be comprehensible to a modern audience.
Our scheduling of these productions followed a sort of logic: we commissioned a companion piece to Dido and Aeneas, which needed at least two years to complete. So, Dido became the “centerpiece” of the five-year cycle. As artistic and musical director, I knew the score of The Fairy Queen well, and chose--with the collaboration of my artistic associates, Derek Boyes (stage director/actor) and Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière (choreographer/dancer)—appropriate scenes from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to complement the score. This would be a strong piece to “open” the cycle. Similarly, I was quite familiar with the score of King Arthur, and had seen the excellent staging of it at the 1995 Boston Early Music Festival. I somehow felt we would do well to delay as long as possible a production of King Arthur to allow us to develop a style and gain confidence with staging semi-opera. So, it was put at the end of the cycle, and [End Page 163] was to coincide with the 350th anniversary celebrations of Purcell’s birth in 2009. The two more obscure pieces—Dioclesian and The Indian Queen—were produced in the second and fourth years of the cycle respectively.
In addition to Purcell productions, our first four seasons included stagings of other baroque masques: John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers, Handel’s Acis and Galatea, and Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. We also presented twentieth-century masque-inspired repertoire (Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat), “variety” evenings on wide-ranging themes and newly-commissioned masques from Canadian composers and writers. By the time we turned our focus to a staging of King Arthur, then, we had close to twenty productions under our belts and approached the rich music of Purcell and first-rate poetry of Dryden with an assuredness of having learned from earlier productions what works and what is not essential in producing Purcell.
We learned to be ruthless editors and to concentrate on presenting the elements of the story in a linear and direct way, eliminating extraneous characters and plotlines. We learned to approach the music, dances, and stories with sincerity and humility, keeping interpretations and contemplations of “sub-text” to a bare minimum and simply offering these pieces in a spirit of naturalistic warmth and charm. We learned to engage first-rate musicians, dancers, and actors who were open to the collaborative model we built for the company, artists who would revel in each other’s talents and radiate the joys of discovery. Indeed, in most cases the rehearsal periods were short and intense, often culminating in dress rehearsals where we were watching each other’s work for the first time! We learned to trust in our abilities to mount “historically-informed” productions, but not to feel hampered by notions of “authenticity.” We developed a strong yet simple visual element to our productions with the use of projections of images created by a Montreal visual artist, Caroline Guilbault. Most importantly, we learned of the tremendously entertaining and moving power of Purcell’s music, recognizing that it “fit” the dramatic situations it was seeking to complement brilliantly.