United Kingdom Purcell: King Arthur (concert performance): The Sixteen / Harry Christophers (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 27.8.2012. (SRT)
When Purcell wrote King Arthur opera (or semi-opera as it is more accurately called) in this country looked very different. The scenes were episodic and linked with spoken dialogue and, crucially, it was in English. Upon Purcell’s death English opera stood at a crossroads. By the arrival of Handel it had turned decisively towards Italian opera with its sung recitatives, star singers and foreign language. The rest, as they say, is history, but a part of me has always thought it a shame that British opera took the direction it did.
There’s something intrinsically appealing about a piece like King Arthur: it’s whimsical in the way that it taps into what there is of a British national mythology, and it has a uniquely direct power of communication in the English language, Purcell being the greatest master of setting the native tongue until the 20th Century. Furthermore, the masque of the final act contains a celebration of Britishness that would have appealed to its 17th century audience every bit as much as an Olympic opening ceremony.
It helps when that communication is made all the more powerful by a group like The Sixteen. Just like last week’s Collegium Vocale Gent, The Sixteen have a uniquely close blend that makes every word intelligible and immediate for the listener. Christophers has trained them as a crack team and they quality of their musicality is very special. His period band add to the pleasure, delicate strings supported by characterful winds and the occasional martial trumpets and drums, who sounded thrilling on their rare appearances.
The trio of principal soloists was very stylish. Sophie Bevan’s bright, ethereal soprano was right at home in this repertoire, and she sang Fairest Isle with alluring beauty. Even finer, though less frequently used was Robert Murray’s gorgeous tenor. His clean, lyrical voice was rich and beautiful, and his Shepherd aria in Act 2 was one of the highlights of the evening. Less secure was the bass of Jonathan Best, a late stand-in for Jonathan Lemalu, steady enough but effortful at times. The various soloists from the choir were very fine too, underlining what a top class ensemble this is. The male chorus’ comic antics during the Comus scene were diverting but unnecessary and rather out of place.
The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 2nd September at a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk