Friday 8 May 2009

Review of "King Arthur"

Hervé Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel have already given a run of staged performances of Purcell's King Arthur in Montpelier. Wednesday's night's appearance in the Barbican concert hall marked the beginning of a concert tour of King Arthur. But this time they are performing just the musical portions of the piece and sensibly Niquet has opted for an Anglophone cast (with one Swede).

This year's Handel and Purcell anniversaries rather cause a problem for many French and Italian groups, as singing in English is not necessarily one of their strong points; whereas German, Dutch and Scandinavian singers and ensembles tend to be more comfortable in English. Niquet's cast (Susan Gritton, Deborah York, Anders J. Dahlin, James Gilchrist and Andrew Foster-Williams) ensured that the solos were given in impeccable English and his choir sang the choruses with admirable credibility and clarity and only the occasionally dodgy vowel.

Rather impressively, the only people using music were the orchestral players. Niquet, his choristers and soloists were all singing from memory; though Deborah York discreetly consulted a vocal score when not singing and Dahlin had one unfortunate lapse). As is becoming the norm, Niquet performed the work with high tenors rather than altos.

Niquet's speeds were noticeably brisk. Not that he sounded in a hurry but he ensured that everything sped past at quite a lively pace. There were some moments when I wished that he would linger rather. Rhythms were always sprung and the results were a delight to listen to whatever the speed, Niquet's background in the French baroque ensuring that Purcell's French influences came to the fore, even in a work as quintessentially English as this.

Having the singers performing off the book meant that they could be far more communicative than usual. Though no director was credited, this was more than a concert performance. The singers walked on and off and these entrances and exits were made part of the show. Each piece, or group of pieces was carefully placed in terms of blocking and the relationships between the singers. The results were enormously communicative and in an amorphous work like King Arthur (performed sans spoken text) this ensured that we understood what was being sung from a comprehension and emotional point of view. For the famous Frost scene, the staging went a little further with Andrew Foster-Williams and the chorus all wrapped up in shawls, hats and scarves. The only time this 'demi-semi staging' went too far was in the Comus 'harvest home' section of the last act when both singers and choir had to put on Mummerset accents (with variable results) and the choristers had to act drunk. Luckily this did not last long and was succeeded by Susan Gritton singing 'Fairest Isle' with glorious directness and simplicity. Mezzo-soprano Melodie Ruvio stepped up from the chorus to form a confident third Nymph in trio with Gritton and York.

Most of the singers have extensive experience of both period and non-period performance and this seems to have aided their ability to project a character and shape the music. Niquet took no prisoners however and all the singers had to dash off ornaments often at an alarming pace; the results were brilliant and wonderfully creditable.

Gritton and York have different voices and stage demeanours but they complemented each other perfectly and made a delicious pair of nymphs trying to tempt King Arthur. York was a charming Cupid in the Frost Scene and, as mentioned, Gritton was perfect in Fairest Isle.

Dahlin provided the high tenor parts. His stage demeanour is a little mannered but he sings these high tenor parts to perfection and even managed a good approximation of a Mummerset accent. James Gilchrist sang the remaining tenor roles, showing that despite his burgeoning career in 19th and 20th century music, he is still difficult to beat in this repertoire as well.

Similarly Andrew Foster-Williams was nicely communicative whilst displaying some fine, focussed tone and lovely low notes.

This is a work where choir and orchestra matter as much as the soloists and here Le Concert Spirituel responded to Niquet's lively and imaginative direction. The ensemble used two harpsichords and three theorbos so we got a very rich sound. There were some nice instrumental solos from various members of the ensemble. The hard working choir were equally communicative. All seemed enthusiastic and communicated their enthusiasm. In fact this sense of joy came from all the performers, and infected the audience sending us delightfully home

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