London Concert Choir, Counterpoint, Mark Forkgen (conductor), Rachel Elliott (soprano), Rebecca Outram (soprano), Bethany Partridge (soprano), William Towers (countertenor), James Way (tenor), Peter Willcock (baritone)
Cadogan Hall, 7th November 2019
Henry Purcell – King Arthur
Early afternoon spent in the company of Joaquin Phoenix in Todd Phillips’s Joker before an evening listening to a semi-staged (is there any other) performance of Purcell’s semi-opera. I can categorically state that no-one else in the world will have thus spent their day.
You don’t need to hear from me as to Joker. Suffice to say that I am on the side of those who consider this bleak, referential, origin story to be a stone-cold classic.
As is, in it’s own way King Arthur. A classic I mean. Not bleak. Old HP didn’t have that in him. Though, famously, stone cold, per the famous chattering strings in the Frost Scene in Scene 2 of Act 3. HP just couldn’t help himself when it came to programmatic music, word painting as we arty farty types call it, and, when it comes to combination of music and voice he has rarely been surpassed, ever, though he always stayed in his comfortable, and successful, groove during his all too short 36 years.
Now King Arthur, like must of his theatrical oeuvre isn’t really an opera. The main characters don’t sing, to hat is left to the gods, fairies and peasants, of which there are a fair few here. The Britons and the Saxons, of which there are also a fair few, are spoken roles for actors. The libretto is by none other than John Dryden, superstar Restoration poet, imagine him and Purcell as a compositional supergroup, and the first performance was at the Queen’s Theatre on the river in London in 1691. Of course by then the royal patronage that both basked in under Charlie and Jimmy Twos was over, (Dryden had even converted to Catholicism to keep the commissions rolling in), and we had a Dutchman on the throne. After his success of Purcell’s Diocletian, promoter Thomas Betterton, who had written its libretto, took a punt on King Arthur, which also went down very well.
It is very silly. It tells the tale of the battles between King Arthur and the Saxons, specifically Arthur’s mission to rescue his betrothed, the blind Cornish princess Emmeline, stolen away by the dastardly King Oswald of Kent. Merlin, his Saxon equivalent, Osmond, and various right hand men and women also get a look in, as do Cupid, Venus, Grimbald, various other fairy types and a chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses. I think you can get the picture. The entertainment was intended to look as good as it sounded, with a masque in Act 3 and and variously, a sacrifice, an off stage battle, peasants dancing in a pavilion, an enchanted wood, a castle and the seas around our very own sceptred isle. Dryden used all manner of sources for his text and it shows. And, at its heart, it is shameless jingoism.
As you can see, written more for spectacle than sense, and to allow the stage-makers of the time to show off their skills. Even with a rudimentary synopsis and the explanations of our two narrators for this performance, Aisling Turner and Joe Pike. Best just to sit back and relax and let the tunes roll over. Which they did, though I have to say this didn’t really catch fire in the way I had expected. Purcell and Dryden crammed a lot in in terms of mood and message, as well as genre, so bringing it all together is tricky and maybe a bit beyond conductor Mark Forkgen. Moving choir and soloists on and off stage and to different parts of the hall, added drama but the logistics proved a little distracting. If I am honest I lost track a bit somewhere in Act 2 and never really caught up.
Which meant the focus was music and singers. IMHO the pick of the soloists was bass baritone Peter Willcock with some of the others occasionally getting lost against the muscly sound of fine scratch HIP ensemble Counterpoint. Which suited me since it is that, “oh isn’t that clever”, or “isn’t that lovely” reaction to so many of Purcell’s musical ideas, that makes it such a pleasure to listen to. Whether elaborate counterpoint, or direct homophony, invariably against the chugging ground bass continuo, with frequent arpeggios, dotted rhythms, wide spread chords, with minimal dissonance, always different, always the same, with simple structures subjected to continual reinvention.