on 14 July 2002
Opera in English doesn't just have to be Benjamin Britten and
questionable translations of the old favourites. Three hundred
years ago, Henry Purcell was dragging the art-form towards new
heights of emotional expressiveness whilst always remembering
to put in a few good tunes for the drunken groundlings to sing
along with. "King Arthur" runs the gamut of English styles,
beginning with a verse anthem (admittedly to the Saxon god
Woden!), going through masque and rowdy patriotism, and peaking
with one of the most ravishingly beautiful soprano arias ever written.
A quick warning is perhaps in order; King Arthur is semi-opera,
mixing spoken and sung sections in the same mould as The Magic Flute and Fidelio; this recording does miss out large chunks of
plot which the spoken sections originally presented! Nevertheless, a quick glance at the booklet should put a stop
to too much confusion and explain exactly what happens to all
the mysteriously disappearing Saxons that King Arthur is supposed to be battling in the first scene.
An additional joy to be found in King Arthur is that Purcell appears to be playing the same
games that many later composers tried- and thoroughly beating
them, too! Certainly his hilarious evocation of a loveless land,
populated by the unfortunate Cold People made me shiver far more than Vivaldi's comparatively clement winter; we have a seduction scene that has all the sensual eroticism of Parsifal's Flower
Maidens scene (thank heaven, it's much shorter too!); and Purcell's last act seems to create a last-night-of-the-Proms flag-waving atmosphere far better than clunky old Thomas Arne's Rule Britannia and all the rest of that panoply.
William Christie and Les Arts Florissants respond to the music
with tremendous style, as ever; more than that, you can feel
that the chorus and orchestra are having marvellous fun, whether
they are being those Saxon warriors, deceitful sprites or dancing shepherds. It's almost impossible to forget that they are a
French orchestra, with string tone and ornamentations that wouldn't be out of place in Louis XIV's court. Occasionally this
Frenchness gets the better of the pronunciation of the chorus (and indeed, the bass Petteri Salomaa) who take glee in proclaiming the delights of "Eauld Eengland"; but apart from this one glitch their musicality and pronunciation is flawless.
Overall, William Christie's King Arthur is a marvellous introduction to a far too neglected genre; moreover, it's a treat for Purcell fans, especially if they appreciate Purcell with less of the well-behaved English chapel style and
a bit more Continental cheek!