King Arthur might be a revered figure in British folklore, but in American choreographer Mark Morris" reworking of a pedantic 17th-century opera by composer Henry Purcell and poet John Dryden, the legendary ruler is conspicuously and blessedly absent. In a move that might be as audacious as pulling a sword from a stone, Morris has not only jettisoned Dryden's dry text from his version of King Arthur, currently receiving its American premiere, but he's also done away with the good king himself. In this story about Arthur's efforts to rescue his blind fiancée, Emmeline, from the Saxon king who has kidnapped her, the most we see of the man is a big, goofy-looking crown that pops up on stage every now and again. What remains is a spiraling 100-minute riff on Purcell's 1691 score, combining the choreographer's dance steps (executed by Morris' renowned Dance Group) with sung performances by members of the original cast from the English National Opera. The work, which premiered in London in June and later moves to New York, features British conductor Jane Glover helming San Francisco's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra along with costumes by longtime Morris collaborator Isaac Mizrahi.
Over the past 25 years, Morris has made a name for himself on both sides of the Atlantic by creating dance works based on baroque music, such as 1981's Gloria (set to Vivaldi), and 1989's Dido and Aeneas (based on the Purcell opera of the same name). The choreographer's passion and spry irreverence for stately 17th-century musical styles is what makes this former operatic stinker sing. For example, Morris injects humor into one scene in which Cupid covers the world in ice by staging it in a vintage icebox. Mizrahi's costumes are similarly wacky, ranging from Roman helmets to tighty-whities.
While Morris' playful take on Purcell might offend purists, London critics have been lavish in their praise. By taking Excalibur to Dryden's rambling poetry and allowing the composer's beautiful score to breathe again, Morris may have finally rendered the opera worthy of the legend upon which it's based.
Sept. 30-Oct. 7