A Worthy Rendition of Purcell’s King Arthur

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Purcell, King Arthur or The British Worthy, Z628: Nicholas Le Provost (Narrator), Soloists, New London Consort / Philip Pickett (Director/Conductor), Birmingham Town Hall, 31.5.2013 (GR).

A work that is difficult to slot into a recognised genre, Henry Purcell did his own thing with King Arthur to indulge his 1691 London audience. A so-called semi-opera based upon the libretto of John Dryden, it has its roots in masque and French ballet, combining music and drama with a unique brand of orchestral colour and the spoken word, true to Renaissance convention yet many a mile from Camelot. The diversity of composition is both its strength and weakness: the sheer variety of mood communicated around Birmingham’s Town Hall in under two hours for this concert version suffered in my view from a stuttering continuity of plot. Philip Pickett and the players of the New London Consort together with twelve credited singers that comprised both chorus and solo parts performed some twenty-two titled roles plus numerous Spirits, Sirens and Nereids. Trying to follow the action detracted considerably from the listening process. Nevertheless Pickett has devised a ‘worthy’ new version of Purcell’s seventeenth century composition.

Dryden’s original narrative had clear political overtones – the conflict between King Arthur and the Saxons being an allegory of the 1678-81 Exclusion Crisis of Charles II. Even with the multitude of civil unrest today I found no obvious parallels. Pickett and his team had written a fresh dramatic text that went some way to linking the five acts together. The plot was scripted as being seen through the eyes of Merlin, Arthur’s ‘inchanter’ and read by celebrated actor Nicholas le Provost (whose career has featured roles in such diverse productions as Much Ado About Nothing and The Vicar of Dibley). His delivery had openness as well as dry humour, such as when the Britons having won the decisive victory, he invited the Saxons to board the ‘next boat to Calais’.

Thankfully all the Town Hall doors were shut before the chords of the First Musick began – unlike those at the 1691 premier when the audience were traditionally still assembling. The orchestra expressed an air of anticipation, confirmed by Merlin’s warning that the Britons had a ‘fight on their hands’; Purcell’s ability to convey mood had begun. I thought the Saxon sequence of We have sacrific’d that opened Act I was somewhat subdued as if their forces were not up for it; but after some inspiring words from their heathen priestess their resolution was confirmed in Brave souls to be renown’d in story. The contrasting tempi of their ‘death despising’ had a chilly ring to it. The trumpets of Simon Munday and John Hutchins plus the timpani of Stephen Burke heralded the Arthur’s triumph with a typical Purcellian tune, taken up by the British Warrior duet Come if you dare – a delightful tenor exchange led by Joseph Cornwall and echoed by Andrew King. This together with the Britons’ chorus Now the battle’s won and the reverberations of the First Act Tune produced a victorious ending to Act I.

If the battle had been won the war was not over yet; the problems of Arthur had just begun and a contest between good and evil opened Act II. Bad guy Grimwald in the shape of baritone Benjamin Bevan attempted to lead the pursuing British to their death over treacherous cliffs, countered by Merlin and guardian angel Philidel (soprano Anna Dennis). The light and airy Dennis plus her supporters pitched against the earthy army of Bevan provided an intriguing musical match in Hither this way, this way bend, one of the few items where the music and storyline pulled in the same direction. The spirits of Grimwald and Philidel reminded me of Ariel and Caliban from The Tempest and it was not hard to imagine that this scene could be quite spectacular in a fully staged production. The sonorous Prelude seamlessly changed the mood to pastoral, accentuated by the recorders of Louise Strickland and Heather Moger. Merlin described the shepherds and their lasses song as ‘risqué’, having to ‘leave decoying’ to attend their flocks. Nicholas Hurndall Smith was a melodious and caring shepherd to the gentle shepherdesses of Penelope Appleyard and Faye Newton. This charming ensemble number Honour’s but empty was all quite innocent and delightful, ending joyfully in a Hornpipe, with the rustic oboes of Hilary Stock and Gail Hennessey and the Arcadian bassoon of Rebecca Hammond prominent.

Merlin moved events rapidly on in Act III, relating the capture of Arthur’s blind betrothed Emmeline by former suitor and Saxon leader Oswald, before illustrating his magical powers by curing her blindness. Pickett had moved the Passacaglia to this point, believing it to be its rightful and original location; this took us mid-act to the interval. Cast as Cupid an animated Joanne Lunn got the second half off to a cracking start with her What Ho! thou genius of this isle to introduce a shivering Michael George as Cold Genius. I thought the choral singing of See, See, we assemble excelled here, music and voices the epitome of ‘quiv’ring with cold’. The strings superbly led by Penelope Spencer had a primary role in the subsequent Dance – a cold scene that warmed the cockles. The brief Act IV saw Le Provost tell Arthur to trust nothing he encounters in his quest to reclaim Emmeline from the enchanting wood. Newton and Appleyard as two Sirens generated an ethereal resonance to support the illusions that the king encountered, but naturally the good spirits overcame the bad.

Tenor Simon Grant as Aeolus, the ruler of the winds, blustered in to commence the final act (the accompaniment reminding me of the Gluck’s Furies). His crescendo to celebrate that Britannia had once more triumphed ‘o’er the main’ was notable. In contrast his ‘serene and calm’ plus the two recorders to portray Arthur’s kingdom as ‘Queen of the Islands’ was a poignant moment. The Nereid/Pan duet of Dennis and George continued the spiritual waif-like atmosphere. As the celebrations spread throughout the land, it was time for the peasants to join in. Led by Cornwell as Comus with his three agricultural drinking cronies in Pickett’s version, Your hay it is mow’d provided a comedic element to the drama and proved to be one of the most enjoyable numbers of the evening, much appreciated by the audience. I particularly liked his ‘For why should a blockhead have one in ten’ a sly political dig by Dryden at the tithe system. The quartet closed their routine with a folksy reel to the orchestra’s Tithe Pig; it was definitely ‘hey for the honour of old England’. Lunn brought a purity of tone and diction to Venus’ Fairest isle, all isles excelling, the gods were shining on her message of love and duty, acknowledging that Britannia did indeed rule the waves. Another exultant trumpet salvo heralded the concluding chorus Our natives not alone appear. The combined twelve voices further demonstrated their major contribution to the evening’s entertainment. The singers filed off stage during the final Chaconne, which was a nice touch.

If it is possible to blanket your mind to a situation where the main protagonists have no singing role, then this musical drama can and was a very worthwhile experience.

Geoff Read