King Arthur, Without Farcical Aquatic Ceremonies

AustriaAustria Purcell: King Arthur. Soloists, Robert King (conductor), ensemble and choir of The King’s Consort. Theater an der Wien, Vienna. 29.11.2014 (SS)

Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Julie Cooper (soprano)
Rebecca Outram (soprano)
Daniel Auchincloss (high tenor)
Charles Daniels (tenor)
James Oxley (tenor)
Peter Harvey (bass)

The Theater an der Wien first turned its attention to Purcell in 2012 and the semi-operas have become fixtures in the short time since then, mostly performed in concert by Robert King and his ensemble. Local forces got in ahead of the King’s Consort this year, so the house has witnessed two outings of King Arthur in 2014, although The King Arthur Séance – On Henry Purcell’s Shoulders, an adaptation by Austrian guitarist Helmut Jasbar which sounded in all honesty perched on Michael Nyman’s shoulders, was admittedly something more of a palimpsest.

Robert King is a noted Purcell authority but his ensemble’s playing wears that authority lightly. Continuity and consistency have marked his ongoing survey of the semi-operas – continuity of style, and consistency in the execution, which never falls below a very high standard and sounds magically inoculated against all the common hitches and hiccups of period performance. There’s great leanness to the global sound and with dynamics pitched close together, ensemble feels all on one smoothly integrated plane. Even the brightness of the trumpets barely sticks out. The music itself is served in moderation: the dance rhythms sprightly but never punchy; affective dissonances scarcely underscored; and the mannerisms which became strong in Purcell’s melodic writing from the 1680s on (so quite conspicuous in the semi-operas) similarly toned-down. It’s Purcell done with an idea of restraint, but restraint that can wind up sedate and samey.

King’s understatedness put a big spotlight on his small cast of singers, which consisted of seven soloists listed in the program plus four voices drawn from TKC’s choir. The extensive solos and duets for soprano and bass concentrated most of the singing in the hands of Carolyn Sampson and Peter Harvey, straightaway putting the evening onto a winner, and Harvey unfolded a focused, commanding Cold Genius solo. Sung in its proper context, that measuring out of intensity is only half the challenge, for the more fearsome the figure presented in the famous song (and Harvey was pretty fearsome), the more rapidly that frosty demeanor has to melt in the exchanges with Cupid. Here the turnaround was deft, and as keenly drawn in character as Harvey’s take on the devious sprite Grimbald. Sampson, who isn’t new to the Theater an der Wien but doesn’t enjoy the same name recognition in Vienna as in the UK, took a while to get vocally limber and is capable of greater loveliness in ‘Fairest isle’, yet gave one of those performances in which things being a notch below the usual standard took little pleasure out of it. “‘Tis I, ‘tis I, ‘tis I that have warm’d ye”, sings her Cupid, and that she did.

The only weak link was Charles Daniels, who was assigned the major tenor solos, most of them with brisk phrases and complex, changeable rhythms. Agility and diction were good but the voice sounded much frayed. Performing just the diverse musical sections of King Arthur without the play makes a mish-mash of scenes – many mythological/magical, others bucolic, and one inebriated – so just as well that the rest of the singers were as adept in their portraiture as Harvey. The audience, coming themselves from a city with a tangy local dialect, were greatly amused by the cod West Country accents adopted for ‘Your hay it is mow’d’, and Dryden’s text generally went down as something whimsically British and a bit silly, a forerunner maybe to the ‘Knights of the Coconut’ (as the Monty Python film is known here). But there’s no harm in that.

Seb Smallshaw

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