John Dryden wrote a King Arthur libretto in 1684. It was intended for the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Restoration of King Charles II to the English throne in 1685, but those were turbulent times. That libretto no longer exists.
The project came back to life in 1690 thanks to Thomas Betterton. Henry Purcell had made a hit with Betterton’s audiences with the music he provided for Dioclesian, and Betterton wanted more milk from his cash cow. He suggested that Dryden team up with Purcell with a return to Dryden’s King Arthur project. The result was a “semi-opera,” with significant portions of Dryden’s text spoken, rather than sung. The full text can be found in the University of California Press compilation of Dryden’s works, but it probably receives little attention outside of the classroom.
Purcell’s music, on the other hand, has survived and has had many champions. One of them was Alfred Deller, a pioneer in the performance of “early music” before his interest became popular. He provided the performers for a full account of Purcell’s music for harmonia mundi, and the recording sessions took place in 1976 and 1978. harmonia mundi has kept this recording in circulation, now as a two-CD album.
In 2008 Boston Baroque, under Music Director Martin Pearlman, presented a concert performance of all of the music Purcell had composer for Dryden. Dryden’s spoken text was replaced by a spoken narrative written by Laurence Senelick of Tufts University, which combined selected Dryden passages with stage directions and Senelick’s own verse. When the results were performed, poet Robert Pinsky served as narrator and added some of his own adaptations to the text.
All this may remind some of the joke that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. However, the results were impressive enough that Jeffrey Thomas decided to make Boston Baroque’s approach a major project for this summer’s American Bach Soloists (ABS) Academy. Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Thomas led the full forces of Academy students, supplemented with a few ABS instrumentalists, in the first of two performances of the “Pearlman edition” of Purcell’s King Arthur, or the British Worthy. The narrator was Hugh Davies, who sings bass in the American Bach Choir.
The Academy vocalists served both as members of the chorus and the performers of solo roles, almost all of which were relatively minor. The major exception involved the aria “Fairest isle,” which tends to show up in the program of just about every Purcell vocal recital. In the libretto the aria is sung by Venus in her only appearance in the libretto; and characters such as Arthur, Merlin, and the Saxon forces Arthur is fighting never sing at all.
Last night’s performance was anything but “a horse designed by a committee.” The blend of the chorus members was impeccable from beginning to end and could not have been better complemented by the instrumental resources. Davies knew just when to play up that the text was being arch in its approach to rhyme. (Completing one rhyme with the anachronistic “Wagnerian” was a master touch; and Davies delivered it perfectly.) The rest of the time he provided a straightforward account of the “interstitial glue” to remind the audience that the original version really did have an overarching narrative.
What was most impressive was how the entire evening emerged as the combined efforts of so many individuals who served as both soloists and members of the group. Indeed, it took an entire page of the program book to enumerate all the roles taken by vocal soloists. (That page will not be reproduced here; all of those roles are enumerated on the King Arthur Wikipedia page.) However, Thomas definitely deserves credit, not only for pulling everything together but also for his “stage management” technique in having the solo vocalists leave and return to the full chorus in ways that fit smoothly with the instrumental music.
It is also worth remembering that this music was first performed in 1691. Yet there are any number of familiar tropes that show up in Purcell’s writing, many of which we easily associate with composers like George Frideric Handel and Antonio Vivaldi. However, when we listen to the “shivering” aria of the Cold Genius character, we have to remember that Vivaldi’s “tone painting” of winter took place more than a quarter century after King Arthur was first performed. The same may be said of Handel’s own brush with Dryden’s text, his setting of the “Ode for St. Cecilia's Day.” It would not be out of the question to suggest that Handel had witnessed a revival of King Arthur and picked up on some of Purcell’s tropes, perhaps as his way of nodding graciously to Dryden.