Seraphic Fire to serve up modern take on “King Arthur”

By David Fleshler

Seraphic Fire will close its season this weekend with an updated version of Henry Purcell's "King Arthur."

Glorious music. Stupefying plot.

That was the dilemma that confronted Patrick Dupré Quigley, artistic director of the choir Seraphic Fire, when he decided to perform Henry Purcell’s late 17th century work, King Arthur.

The five-act “semi-opera” tells the story of the battles between Arthur’s Britons and the invading Saxons, although it lacks some of the best-known elements of the Arthurian legend, such as Camelot, Guinevere and Sir Lancelot.

The text is by the great English poet John Dryden, but while the libretto may have worked in 17th century London, it renders the work almost unperformable today, Quigley said.

“To use the Dryden play has a number of different complications about it,” he said. “One is it’s incredibly long. If you read it, it’s almost overbearingly dull.”

So Quigley commissioned a reworking of the drama from the American playwright Laura Schellhardt, head of the playwriting program at Northwestern University and author of Screenwriting for Dummies, whose works have been produced in New York, Seattle, Chicago, Washington DC, Providence, Minneapolis, Orlando, Sarasota, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The reworked version, to be performed Friday through Sunday in Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale, retains Dryden’s texts for arias and choruses but deletes the long-winded spoken parts that came between them, substituting a new narrator intended to make the work more accessible to contemporary audiences.

“We commissioned a condensed, witty and modern framework for the music that would reference the plot of the original Dryden play,” he said. “The script for this is not some sort of unintelligible performance art. It’s funny, it’s exciting, it’s interesting. People will be engaged by [the narrator's] character.

And it’s in modern English. The piece isn’t recognized for the play that surrounds it but because the music is sublime.”

Among the musical highlights, Quigley said, is the Frost scene, in which Cupid comes to earth and finds a land driven only by reason with no love in it.

“It’s freezing cold, and Cupid through her raising of the Cold Genius thaws him through love,” Quigley said. “He has this amazing baritone aria where he and the orchestra shiver through the whole thing, which is followed by the chattering chorus, where the chorus is shivering and chattering through the whole thing, and then Cupid comes and warms them.”

Another highlight is the soprano aria Fairest Isle, which is sung by Venus about Britain. “It’s one of these sort of perfect Purcellian moments,” said Quigley.

Seraphic Fire will perform Purcell’s King Arthur Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the New World Center in Miami Beach, and Sunday at 4 p.m. at All Saints Episcopal Church, Fort Lauderdale. www.seraphicfire.org305-285-9060

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Wed May 11, 2011
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