Sunday, March 24, 2019

Indianapolis Opera finds a congenial spot in 'Camelot'

King Arthur lifts aloft the symbol of his authority.
The material of Arthurian legend is well-worn in the English-speaking world, and among its products that best succeed at keeping the legacy alive is the Lerner and Lowe musical "Camelot."

Indianapolis Opera ended its 2018-19 season this weekend with a production of the show that put lively detail into the familiar story of ancient British knighthood in flower, wilted by shortsightedness and adultery.

The production looked good, nicely laid out and with the cast outfitted acceptably. With "Camelot" that means you can't be finicky about authenticity when the matter at hand derives from a prehistorical period (in English terms, not elsewhere) that has always floated free of known events. It's a timeless milieu, vastly different from our own but with immortal human difficulties in contention.

To make the challenged hero, King Arthur, a naive, well-intentioned innovator in statecraft is most of what's needed to engage an audience's sympathy. And Daniel Narducci's portrayal struck those notes firmly, as seen Saturday night at Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts. He convincingly stood for the force of civilization, established and sustained by power and justified by adherence to fairness and the peaceful resolution of disputes. Supported by the distant wisdom of Merlin, the wizard whose useful presence in times of trial is thwarted by a spell that removes him from the scene, Arthur is on his own.

For the sake of entertainment, the hard work of influencing the behavior of quarreling elites on horseback toward calmer conflict management goes on in the background. But any King Arthur has to look as though he wields such influence, always helped by the magic that gave him his sword Excalibur as the enduring symbol of his right to rule. Narducci sang with that kind of authority as well.  At first, the hero's gift for self-deprecating humor was too muted, as Arthur is nervously self-conscious awaiting his bride Guenevere ("I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight"). It came through winningly in his second-act duet with Marci Jackson's queen, "What Do the Simple Folk Do?"

Lancelot (Luke Scott) declares to Guenevere his forbidden love.
I don't hesitate to call that number the show's best in representing its lighter side. "Camelot" ends sadly with the demise of the kingdom, the only hopeful note being Arthur's stirring reprise of the title song to a young visitor to the battlefield whose hero-worship is all-consuming. So the king enlists him as the last knight of the round table and charges him to convey the story to his neighbors and to posterity. Given that mostly gloomy conclusion, "What Do the Simple Folk Do?" earlier reasserts the bond between Arthur and Guenevere that is destined to die through her love affair with Sir Lancelot.

Jackson's Guenevere lacked the right ingenue quality in her initial appearance. "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood" didn't seem something the bride minded leaving behind. But the characterization later became fully fitting for a queen who quickly assumes a power capable of tempering her husband's idealism. And there was a knowing, self-aware quality in Jackson's performance that made her fatal attraction to Lancelot believable, even after her initial mockery.

In fact, the most unbelievable thing about that forbidden love is how it's generated by the French knight's miraculous, sudden healing of a knight he has slain while jousting in earnest. It's a real deus ex machina in that the miracle seems to stem from Lancelot's purity and moral stature; his God is thus a kind of enabler, planting the seed of Camelot's destruction. This is a disconcerting matter that probably can't bear much scrutiny.

The only chink in Lancelot's armor at first appears to be his lack of humility, which Luke Scott projected well in the conceited song "C'est Moi." Scott, like Narducci, had the vocal equipment required to put his character across, both in his sworn allegiance to the king and in his conflicted drive to betray that trust by becoming the queen's lover.

In other roles, David Paul Mosedale was too soft-spoken to make a dramatic impression as the wizard that was equal to his sage appearance. A murmuring Merlin is not quite the thing to establish the origins of Camelot. Maybe it was a way to make the most complete contrast with Mosedale's major role, that of the befuddled knight errant Pellinore, who becomes Arthur's most conspicuous ally. The actor's Pellinore had a broad nasal intonation and antic brashness, comical at every turn, that made him a distant cousin of the uproarious Cockney Alfred P. Doolittle in another Lerner and Loewe musical, "My Fair Lady."

The other supporting role, that of the conniving, resentful bastard son Mordred, was given a note of menace that ought to have been more provocative and dangerous in Benjamin Adams' performance.  His one big number, "The Seven Deadly Virtues," is a nice piece of satirical writing by the show's creators that needs to be belted out with crisp disdain. It got something a little less specific, though the point the character wants to make is that he's enlisted on the dark side. And indeed Mordred becomes responsible for turning the illegitimate affair at court into a matter of treason, leading to Camelot's destruction.

A. Scott Parry's stage direction was smooth and effective, particularly so in the climactic ensemble song "Guenevere," which makes the case against the queen the cause of civil war. Similarly well-knit was the first-act ensemble number, 'The Lusty Month of May," which ought to have looked a little more naughty, given the suggestive lyrics put into the mouth of the soon-to-be-naughty Queen Guenevere.

The production was conducted by Kelly Kuo, capably keeping stage and pit in sync. The orchestra was especially eloquent in the underscoring of dialogue. Like movie music, these passages do so much to put across the emotional heft of the ageless story. Lighting design by Quinten James, with projections by Zach Rosing, complemented the action, even though there were a few missed cues in which an actor moved into shadow when the light should have been there immediately.
















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