Dramatick Opera: Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company in Purcell and Dryden's King Arthur at Temple

Dramatick Opera: Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company in Purcell and Dryden's King Arthur at Temple

Planet Hugill review

September 2023

Link to the review on the Planet Hugill website: here.

Stylish musical performances allied to an imaginative dramatic context create a very satisfying evocation of Purcell and Dryden's dramatick opera

17th century semi-opera (or dramatick opera as contemporaries called it) remains a tantalising genre, more akin to a modern West End musical theatre spectacular than anything. It is a curious hybrid that owes its existence to the particularity of late 17th century London where with a court whose tastes overran budget, a highly developed spoken theatre tradition, independent theatres where actors needed to be paid so economics forced the necessity of theatrical performances having a commercial element, and local taste. After all the fondness for mixing spoken and sung in a spectacular setting was still alive and well in 1826 when Weber was commissioned to write an opera for Covent Garden; Oberon in its original form is effectively a semi-opera.

There have been modern revivals of semi-opera in its full form, notably Glyndebourne's production of Purcell's The Fairy Queen (2009) and the Royal Opera's production of Purcell's King Arthur (1995), with a brave attempt at King Arthur by the Buxton Festival in 1986. But the style, dramatic inconsequentiality and sheer length mitigate against regular revival. So what to do? Too many of the best musical scenes in Purcell's semi-operas have little to do with the overall plot and often modern performances simply present the music on its own [Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli did that at their 2019 performance of King Arthur, see my review].

Temple Music presented a performance of Purcell's King Arthur in Temple Church on Wednesday 27 September when Christian Curnyn directed the Early Opera Company with sopranos Mhairi Lawson and Rowan Pierce, tenors Samuel Boden and James Way, and bass-baritone Edward Grint. The work was presented with a linking narration by Thomas Guthrie which was spoken by actor Lindsay Duncan.

I have to say from the outset that Lindsay Duncan's performance of Thomas Guthrie's text was one of the most satisfying examples I have come across of the rather awkward replacing of spoken dialogue with a narrator. Guthrie's text was engagingly poetic without ever resorting to doggerel drivel and full of delightful imagery. We began with a spoken prologue, setting the context and giving some sly modern hints couched in poetic terms. I loved the phrase 'Our allegorical acoustic elves'. Throughout, Guthrie presented Dryden's plot without excuse or explanation, and Duncan's delivery charmed and engaged, but there were lovely little asides and comments.

This presentation meant that there was always a dramatic context for the music and the singers took advantage of this, giving us some vivid cameos and extended moments, incarnating characters in music rather than simply presenting a musical score. The rationale of the dramaturgy was left to us, and that is what happened at the first performance; the work was intended as an allegorical comment (King Arthur=Charles II, Emmeline=the British Nation, Oswald=Parliament etc.), but Dryden's text as presented in 1691 gave no external pointers.

This was quite a small-scale performance, the five singers covering solos and ensembles. James Way was a very last-minute stand-in for Nick Pritchard who was ill, yet there was never a moment when you suspected that. Tenor Samuel Boden sang the alto solos as high tenor solos, as probably happened in Purcell's day. The instrumental ensemble was similarly tight, seven strings plus three continuo instruments, oboes (doubling recorders), bassoon and trumpet.  But the results were remarkably rich. From the opening notes of the overture, the instrumental ensemble gave us music that was full of colour and contrasts in tone, and the overture had that sense of engaging excitement, something was about to happen.

For the Act One celebrations, the Saxons were an engaging bunch, certainly rather civilised and definitely musically satisfying with Edward Grint providing dignified resonance and James Way singing with vibrant tone, Rowan Pierce sang with bright, well-rounded tone and Samuel Boden's contribution was delightfully perky. The act ended with James Way and trumpeter Dave Hendry bringing things to a close with a nice swagger. 

Act Two features a selection of diverse scenes and moved from Mhairi Lawson's delightfully characterful bright spirit pitted against Edward Grint's stylishly swaggering darker one, to more gently characterful moments with James Way, Rowan Pierce and Mhairi Lawson as shepherds full of graceful, shapely elegance. There is quite a lot of instrumental music and these delightfully punctuated things, so that Act Two concluded with a richly resonant account of the Second Act Tune. These are what I always think of as 'selling ice-cream music', moment for punters to buy things, to move about, yet Purcell's inspiration is always imaginative.

Act Three consists of the work's most famous scene, the Cold Scene, partly inspired by Lully. It has precious little to do with the plot, but is wonderful on its own terms. Edward Grint was vivid as the dark-toned Cold Genius with Mhairi Lawson as an engagingly witty Cupid, and lightly stylish contributions from the chorus. But this scene is as much about the instrumental contributions, and these were equally characterful to create scene full of sonic imagination, ending with the catchy rhythms of the horn pipe.

Act Four presents a pair of diverse musical moments somewhat tangential to the plot. First came Rowan Pierce and Mhairi Lawson's elegantly seductive sirens, the purity of their tone belied the danger of the message. Then the wonderfully grand and very French passacaglia along with solos and duets to create a satisfying complete scene with vibrant contributions from James Way, Rowan Pierce and Edward Grint, all ending with a wonderfully bracing Fourth Act Tune with its solo trumpet (Dave Hendry).

The final act is more of a celebratory masque. Vivid string playing gave us a sense of 'Ye blust'ring brethren of the skies' with fine contributions from Edward Grint and Rowan Pierce, including a symphony that was a lovely sonic tapestry. The subsequent chorus, sung by the three men with just continuo accompaniment had a highly sophisticated effect which contrasted with the rumbustious Comus scene where the instrumentalists joined in with the chorus and the cod-Somerset accents were not too embarrassing. Mhairi Lawson and Rowan Pierce shared the honours in 'Fairest Isle', both bringing warm tone and expressive phrasing to the piece. Rowan Pierce and Edward Grint then duetted, giving us a sophisticated parsing of Purcell's free arioso. Mhairi Lawson made St George rather more stylish and less tub-thumping than usual and all end with a great sense of style and a lovely swing.

Robert Hugill

Read the full review here


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