Purcell wrote his King Arthur, a five-act 'dramatick opera', in collaboration with the former poet laureate John Dryden in 1690. The work depicts King Arthur's final struggles against the Saxon leader Oswald, before ending in a masque where all things British are celebrated. A skewed, various, fantastical sense of jubilation fills up the finale, thus preventing it from spilling over into empty jingoism.
In accordance with the dramatic conventions of the London stage at that time, Purcell and Dryden designed a piece that featured spoken dialogue between the main characters, substantial instrumental interludes and introductions, and sung sections for allegorical and unnamed characters. The musical sections are ancillary to the main narrative unfolding of the piece, but they act nevertheless as important intensifications of, and scene-settings for, the spoken passages. Such pieces as King Arthur have come to be known as semi-operas, a term that despite its reductive implications actually represents, as Lindsay Kemp states in the programme notes, a form 'that developed into an entertaining and dramatically coherent means of expression in its own right.'
The renowned period-instrument ensemble Le Concert Spirituel gave a concert performance of King Arthur under their charismatic leader Hervé Niquet at the Barbican this week, in which the spoken sections were left out entirely. The piece was thus condensed into a sometimes awkward shape that nevertheless lacked very little in musical character and abundance. The awkwardness was most telling in the initial sections. These were weighed down by a lack of variety in type; the brow-furrowing counterpoint and dancing rondos, though delivered with great verve by the instrumentalists, started to feel a little tedious. The conceit blossomed though once the impressive line-up of soloists, and the effervescent chorus, were significantly engaged. The sheer variety of forms and characters-strophic call and responses between singer and chorus, duets and trios, and brief solos- steamrollered the sensibilities of the audience into cheerful submission.
The performance, too, was abundant; Niquet led from the front with large, demonstrative gestures that signalled to the musicians precisely the size and style he meant to convey, which was large and lairy (though a delicate and quite precise ear for detail underscored it all). Every ounce of humour and levity was brought out in the performance: at appropriate points in the text chorus members slugged from wine, soloists wrapped themselves in blankets, the conductor and chorus donned woolly hats and scarves, and lovers linked arm-in-arm and kissed. The physical word-painting stayed just the right side of droll; it never got too knowing, or too arch. The enhanced performing scope indeed added a great deal to what was already an entertaining, well-judged performance.
Some aspects of the music were lacking, however. The lutes and harpsichords could rarely be heard amidst the diversions around them. The sheer number of strings overpowered these more delicate instruments, as did the conductor's emphasis on big phrasings and exaggerated dynamics. In such a large venue as the Barbican a period-instrument ensemble would always struggle to get the balance of instruments right, and unfortunately on this occasion it was lacking. That aside, however, the ensemble's contribution was inspiring. It was forward-driven in the contrapuntal essays, and suitably alert in the dance episodes. A profusion of tone-colour enriched their playing; each time the buzzing bassoons and oboes entered with a canonical figure, or the remarkably foreign harmonic temperaments of the recorders came to the fore as accompanists, a sudden, strange tension entered the sound which reminded us of the inalienable distance that is shared between our time and that of the ancient instruments that regaled us. Tuning, too, is of course always an issue for period groups, but here the musicians largely maintained a solid, synchronised cohesion in the playing.
Special mention should be made of the soloists. Through each of the quicksilver five acts, which seemed to flit by in a merry, effortless parade of good-humour, all of the five soloists in turn had a chance to excel. James Gilchrist displayed different sides of his voice; bright and brawny and nimble early on, darker-hued and yet more tender later, with a great openness of spirit pervading his personification of the shifting personages of the play. His ornamentation was impressive throughout too; his precise diminution of the line in the repeats as the Shepherd in Act Two is indicative of the level of detail he brought to his performance. Anders J. Dahlin has a more delicate tone, which despite some muddy runs early on was later employed with great expression. A confident, strident Andrew Foster-Williams revelled in the philandering mischief required of him, whilst the two women, Deborah York and Susan Gritton, each gave comfortable and commanding performances. The women excelled particularly in the kiting counterpoint of the duets and trios in the latter acts.
The evening, then, was a delight. The play was joyful, the playing wonderful, and the audience, clearly, lapped up every second. Leaving the hall, most people were whistling one or other of the many memorable tunes from the piece. This can surely be seen as much as a testament to the vitality of the interpretation, as it can to the timeless invention of the writing.
Photos: Hervé Niquet and James Gilchrist
Concert review: Gabrieli Consort perform Dido and Aeneas
CD review: Christine Schafer in songs by Purcell and Crumb
News: Review of Reviews of recent Purcell/Handel double bill
News: Review of reviews of Katie Mitchel's After Dido