Although I have described “King Arthur” above as an Opera in 5
Acts, it is really a play by John Dryden which required elaborate
scenic effects and had occasional sections with music by Purcell.
Dryden described it as “A dramatick opera” but that should not
be understood in a modern sense. Performing the music on its own
gives little idea of any drama that there is in the original.
The musical sections consist indeed of a series of disconnected
scenes for characters who are for the most part peripheral to
the action of the play. Many modern stage performances have tended
to alter or even abandon much of Dryden’s text, thus giving little
idea of the intended effect of the original. A fascinating article
by Professor Curtis Price with these discs explains the complex
history of the play which was written first to celebrate the silver
jubilee of King Charles II and later revised to express a very
different message after the Glorious Revolution.
action derives from episodes in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History
of the Kings of England”. Despite Dryden’s complaint that
he had been “oblig’d to cramp his Verses to make them rugged
to the Reader, that they may be harmonious to the Hearer”
it can seem to listeners today that it is a pity that he did
not go even further by allowing Purcell to write music for
some of the more inherently dramatic scenes. In concert performance
it is common to interpose a brief spoken narrative between
the various sections. The notes with these discs supply that
function, and the libretto is available on line. Although
I find this an inherently extremely inconvenient device it
is certainly better than not having it available at all.
you might expect from a cast largely drawn from singers with
much experience in singing music of this period, and with
the English Consort’s choir and orchestra, the performance
is idiomatic and often extremely beautiful. Only rarely, however,
could it be described as dramatic. The long first scene, for
instance, depicts a heathen sacrifice by the Saxons before
battle. In form, as Prof. Price remarks, it resembles a verse
anthem. Unfortunately in this performance it also sounds like
one, with the Saxons sounding like a particularly genteel
Anglican cathedral choir. Without wanting anything approaching
coarseness it is possible to inject greater urgency and sense
of drama into this scene, which goes for very little. It ends
with an exhortation to “quaff the juice that makes the Britons
bold”. There can be little doubt here that the Priestess can
be referring to nothing stronger than tea.
was therefore disappointed in the overall impact of this recording.
However I must emphasize that there are moments, indeed much
more than moments, of considerable musical beauty and character.
The Chaconne at the start, sometimes included in other performances
at the very end as The Grand Dance, is played with both vigour
and grace, as is the succeeding Overture. “Fairest Isle” is
sung slowly but with mesmerizing control and beauty of tone
and phrasing by Nancy Argenta, and the two daughters of the
stream manage to make their invitation to Arthur to join their
naked swimming extremely and appropriately seductive. Nonetheless
the lack of much in the way of dramatic feeling remains a
problem. Oddly all of the otherwise sober approach is set
aside for “Your hay it is mown” which is sung with rustic
accents and cries of “ouh, ah” and so on. Perhaps by the time
this was recorded something stronger had been substituted
for the tea.
despite all my negative comments, this remains a very well
recorded and never less than efficiently and idiomatically
performed version of a work that deserves to be in every collection.
It is only because it is one of Purcell’s works which seems
to have the most potential for effective dramatic performance
that I complain at anything less than that. If you do not
have a recording of it in your collection this would fill
that gap inexpensively, but I very much hope that a version
will appear during this anniversary year which does so much