MusicFest Vancouver: Three centuries later, Henry Purcell's King Arthur still reigns

Matthew White sings the praises of the Henry Purcell semi-opera—even comparing it to Sondheim’s work

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      King Arthur is best known today as an operatic masterpiece by English baroque composer Henry Purcell. Originally, however, his sublime music and songs were part of a much larger multidisciplinary creation called a Restoration spectacular or a semi-opera.

      “Such works involved mostly spoken narrative, masques, outrageous sets, astounding stage machinery, elaborate costumes, and musical numbers,” explains countertenor Matthew White, one of the stellar performers in Early Music Vancouver’s upcoming production of King Arthur, reached at his Montreal home. “They employed whole troupes of actors, singers, a full orchestra, and small armies of production staff to work all the set and costume changes as well as the immensely popular visual effects.”

      Given the vast budgets required, it’s no surprise that King Arthur, first performed in 1691, is very rarely staged in its entirety today—even by major opera houses. There are practical and artistic reasons, too. “This was baroque decadence at its most flamboyant,” says White. “A production that includes the full spoken text would run well over five hours and presents almost insurmountable issues to modern producers and directors hoping to mount the work.”

      The plot itself is convoluted and thorny. Librettist John Dryden was a great poet but his skills as a dramatist proved less impressive. Contemporary audiences are fortunate to be spared his meandering play, which concerns the legendary British king’s struggle against the heathen Saxon invaders and their wizard Osmond. Purcell’s musical sequences constitute interludes in the main body of the action.

      “We don’t include any of the spoken text, but there will be a synopsis in the program notes, along with descriptions of how each musical scene fits into the original context,” White says of the Vancouver production, which will feature a period-instrument orchestra and 15-voice chorus along with its soloists. “My advice, however, is not to try too hard to make sense of the story but to listen to how Purcell realizes particular moods and emotions. Nobody word-paints like him. Listeners should allow themselves some tangential poetic musing.”

      The songs of Purcell’s King Arthur may lack a clear narrative thread to link them but that doesn’t diminish their artistic coherence. “They’re often so generalized and allegorical in theme that they don’t hang together as a group,” White comments. “Luckily, the music is so glorious and varied that a concert version stands up on its own as a kind of mixed recital.”

      The musical sequence known as the Frost Scene, at the end of Act 3, illustrates Purcell’s brilliance and wit at their finest. “It’s like a play within a play—conjured up by Osmond to convey to the female protagonist Emmeline, who’s the subject of his love, the power of Cupid to warm even the coldest heart. The second number, ”˜What ho! thou genius of this isle’, is extraordinary in its musical rendering of the spirit of winter as he shivers when awakened. The singing is staccato, and very evocative. If you like good tunes and informed use of harmony and melody to express a sentiment and a situation, it’s all there.”

      The theatrical nature of Purcell’s music prompts White to make a bold comparison. “I’ve always felt his songs have more in common with the torch song and Broadway traditions than with standard classical-music repertoire. Though the music requires some vocal technique, for me it’s really more about communicating the text than about achieving an objective standard of perfection.

      “I’m looking at putting together some programs in the future where Broadway singers perform beside classical artists in a mixed evening of song on shared themes,” White continues, “I want to see how the different forms measure up in terms of audience appreciation, and I’m confident the best of Purcell, sung by the best artists, can stand up next to anything ever written—[Stephen] Sondheim and Purcell are actually not so far apart.”

      Henry Purcell’s King Arthur will be presented at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on August 10 as part of the Vancouver Early Music Festival and MusicFest Vancouver.