January 14, 2020
Since its founding in 1979, Long Beach Opera has consistently dared to go where others fear to tread. The company has presented numerous operas that would qualify as “rarely performed,” like Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf (Jonny strikes up) and Karol Szymanowski’s Król Roger (King Roger). More recently, LBO garnered a real coup by presenting the American premiere of Philip Glass’s The Perfect American.
There have been radical updates of period operas under the leadership of Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek, including a 2016 collaboration with the three Chicano provocateurs known collectively as Culture Clash (Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Sigüenza) that resulted in a memorably zany reimagining of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen.
With the success of that production in mind, Mitisek (who is overseeing his final season as artistic director), proposed a reunion of the LBO/Culture Clash team to stage a second Purcell creation — the composer’s 1691 semi-opera, King Arthur.
Lightning, however, did not strike twice. The resulting production, which opened Sunday at the Beverly O’Neill Theater, is little more than a piece of anti-Trump agitprop theater shoehorned into the template of Purcell’s opera.
The semi-opera of Purcell’s day combined the performance of a spoken play with accompanying operatic arias, duets, ensembles, and dances. The Mitisek/Culture-Clash formula transforms the hero of British myth into a delusional American mental-asylum inmate with unabashed Trumpian overtones who is described by his doctor as “deranged, xenophobic, narcissistic, and paranoid.” He is convinced he has to save the country by stopping a migrant horde of space aliens, “bad people,” from taking over. His solution, he cries, is to build a wall at the border with a moat stocked with alligators.
It’s like watching an opera where two different jigsaw puzzles have found their way into the same box. Throughout the performance the cast is required to adopt two contradictory musical and dramatic identities, as cartoon characters and as interpreters of Purcell’s 17th-century vocal lines, in keeping with the performance by the historically-informed Musica Angelica Baroque Ensemble, conducted by Mitisek.
In Purcell’s creation, with a libretto by John Dryden, gone are the Knights of the Round Table and the dream that was Camelot. Instead the focus is on Arthur, King of the Britons, and his heroic effort to turn back a Saxon invasion led by the mighty warrior, Oswald. In LBO’s version, Arthur’s heroics are the hallucinatory fantasies of a madman. His fantasy and real-world companions include nurse and Wonder Woman Gwen E.Veer (acted and sung with joyous abandon by Jamie Chamberlin), and fellow inmate, Lance Lott (bright voiced counter-tenor Darryl Taylor). Their adversary is the evil Dr. Oswald (sung by resounding baritone Cedric Berry). But in fact, Oswald is the paranoid creation of Arthur’s fevered imagination, and the only character that appears to be totally sane.
Ideally, all this cartoon madness and superhero gumbo would somehow fit together with the grace and elegance of Purcell’s score. It never really does. This is not to say there aren’t some truly funny moments, such as when Nurse Veer leads her wards in a 17th-century Zumba class.
More often, the staging and acting is so frenetic and overstated and politically strident that it obscures rather than enhances the performance. There is even a passage where the cast intones Emma Lazarus’s 1883 poem, “The New Colossus” inscribed on the Statue of Liberty to Purcell’s music. I’m grateful that it wasn’t done as a singalong.
Political theater by definition takes sides, and Culture Clash is famous for its provocative creations. Still, I do not know how I would have reacted to the performance if I did not already agree with its presidential assessment.