Friday, 13 February 2015

Making the music count - Purcell's King Arthur

Early Opera Company perform Purcell 'King Arthur' at Wigmore Hall. Photo credit Charlotte Burke
Early Opera Company perform Purcell's King Arthur
at the Wigmore Hall. Photo credit Charlotte Burke
Harvey, Lawson, Boden, Pritchard, Humphreys, Hunt, Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 11 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Purcell without Dryden, in a performance of such quality that the music spoke for itself.

Henry Purcell's semi-opera King Arthur represents, with The Fairy Queen, his largest scale theatrical works. Not operas but a combination of speech, song, dance and spectacular staging, with the convention that the main characters did not sing, only the minor ones. This leaves modern producers with a problem, how to present the semi-operas without having an evening that runs into something overlong and requires a company of actors too. Glyndebourne bravely and successfully did so with The Fairy Queen, but this was very much a festival event. 

As part of the Wigmore Hall's Purcell Retrospective, Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company presented King Arthur in concert on Wednesday 11 February 2015. The music was presented on its own, apparently removed from its dramatic context so that we had to rely just on Purcell's music. But with a superb cast, sopranos Mhairi Lawson and Joelle Harvey, tenors Samuel Boden and Nick Pritchard, basses George Humphreys and Oliver Hunt, the results were entrancing.

And reading the plot summary of the original, you realise that the spoken text might have been by the poet Dryden but it didn't make a great deal of dramatic sense and certainly provided little in the way of dramatic context for the music. Instead, Dryden seems to have created a series of excuses for musical entertainment on stage (the booklet article also linked the text to propaganda for the court of Charles II). Purcell had three opportunities for extended musical sequences in the five-act play. The celebrations for the Saxons in Act one which he set almost as large-scale church anthem. The masque with Cupid and the Cold Genius, perhaps the most satisfying scene in the piece. The final sequence, a masque celebrating England, which is more diffuse but contains one of the work's loveliest numbers, Fairest Isle.


Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company performed the music straight, with an interval after act three. On a packed stage there were 13 instrumentalists and the six singers, with the soloists doubling as chorus which gave the work an intimate and concentrated feel. And the solos were shared between the singers, with the lions share going to Joelle Harvey, Mhairi Lawson, Nick Pritchard and George Humphreys, whilst in the ensembles Samuel Boden contributed a beautifully floated high tenor as the alto line.

From the first notes of the overture, Curnyn and his instrumental provided us with a finely crafted and vividly involving performance, which had a robustness which entirely avoided any preciousness. In Act one, the singers turned the Saxon's invocation to Woden into a shapely anthem with some virtuoso florid passages from Boden and Pritchard. Curnyn's speeds were quite swift, but this did not seem to phase his soloists and we were treated to some very fine singing indeed.

Act two saw Mhairi Lawson as a vividly characterful and finely sung Philomel. Throughout the evening Lawson showed skill at combining immense charm, vivid and rather wicked sense of characterisation whilst never distorting the musical line. She was accompanied by George Humphreys as Grimbald, bringing a nicely bluff swagger to the character. Then Pritchard treated us to more fluid passagework as a Shepherd, with Harvey and Lawson a perky delight as the Shepherdesses.

Lawson was a sly Cupid, with Humphreys showing off his resonant lower register as a characterful Cold Genius. And a lovely vigorous Hornpipe sent us dancing on our way to the interval.

Joelle Harvey and George Humphreys as She and He in Act 4 of Purcell's King Arthur with Christian Curnyn and Early Opera Company at the Wigmore Hall, photo credit Charlotte Burke
Joelle Harvey and George Humphreys as She and He in Act 4 of Purcell's King Arthur
with Christian Curnyn and Early Opera Company at the Wigmore Hall, photo credit Charlotte Burke
Harvey and Lawson was beautifully blended, and very seductive as the sirens. Whilst Boden showed off his easy lyric tenor in the following scene, and demonstrated his flexibility by doubling as the third nymph in the trio of nymphs! The music for the final act started with the grand swagger of the trumpet tune. Not every item lived up to the high quality of Venus's Fairest Isle which was sung in a poised yet vibrant manner by Harvey. Nick Pritchard as Comus, thankfully, did not essay a cod rustic accent, but rather delightfully the audience were encouraged to join in with the chorus (and did so lustily). Harvey and Humphreys were a characterful and very charming He and She, whilst Lawson did her best with the song to Saint George which may well not be by Purcell. The whole concluded with the fine Chaconne, which all imbued with sway and bounce.

I have seen the complete Dryden/Purcell King Arthur a few times and it is a strange, disparate work and frankly if you cannot do it with a large scale and spectacular staging then it is not worth doing. Curnyn and Early Opera Company made the right decision to present just the music and they were simply entrancing, combining superb musicianship with vividly characterful performances.

Wigmore Hall's Henry Purcell: A Retrospective continues throughout 2015 and into 2016.
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