"The King is dead," intoned the king solemnly last night in the Lisner Auditorium. "A good hearted gentleman, a humble servant of God . . . Poor fellow, he went mad. He talked with trees . . . Sometimes he howled like a dog. And he veiled the mirrors not to see himself pass by, for his eyes had turned to blackcurrant jelly."
Virtuosity, unleashed and galloping madly in all directions, had settled back into simple pathos by then; the five-octave vocal range had settled into plain-spoken but eloquent prose. And nobody in the audience was laughing any more, certainly not at the end when the king was driven offstage by a marching drummer who beat his bass drum with a cat-o'-nine-tails. The laughter had begun earlier in the course of Peter Maxwell Davies' "Eight Songs for a Mad King." At first, there were scattered, nervous snickers; does one laugh at an obviously serious, often atonal musical psychodrama?
By slow degrees, the laughs became heartier and more widespread. Here, after all, was a singing actor in nightshirt and bathrobe, crawling around on all fours, pretending to be the ill-fated George III of England and singing in a squeaky falsetto "I think of God. God also is a king." He had sung "Comfort ye, my people" from Handel's "Messiah" in voices that ranged from alto to deep bass, and he had made obscene advances to the flutist (who was caged and represented a pet finch), protesting, "Madam, I mean no harm."
Walking out was one alternative to laughing, and some members of the audience did that as baritone Andrew Gallacher lunged, stumbled and gyrated through the eight songs, like a broken-field runner heading breathlessly for a distant goal line. Granted, this is not music for faint hearts or conservative tastes, but the evacuees were leaving one of the most brilliant vocal and dramatic performances this city has seen in years -- an interpretation worthy of the composition.
Conservative tastes had no trouble at all with the first number on the program, "Le Jongleur de Notre Dame." At least on the surface, this retelling of a medieval tale is as simple and pleasant as the "Eight Songs" are complex and unnerving. The music and stage action have the flavor of a miracle play -- not far from the spirit of "Daniel and the Lions," which was performed here a few weeks ago. But in the true medieval spirit, complexities and enigmas lie below the unruffled surface, not only in the obvious polarity of pride and humility but in the contrasts and interactions of noise and silence, spirit and matter, dominance and obedience.
Both works, like "Miss Donnithorne's Maggot" and "Vesalii Icones," which will be performed tonight, depend perilously on the performers for their effect. Perhaps that is why Davies organized the Fires of London as his chosen interpreters -- sort of a traveling Bayreuth. In any case, these performers, deeply versed in the work, gave impressive interpretations. Mime-juggler Jonny James, who performed the title role in "Le Jongleur," is not the greatest juggler who has ever played in Washington. But his real assignment was to charm the audience, and that he did, as did the vigorous children's band from the Selma Levine School who ushered him into the auditorium.