Early Music Festival Utrecht 2015 part 7: “King Arthur” and all that

Henry Purcell and John Dryden’s semi-opera “King Arthur”

The early evening concert of Monday 31st of August was performed by the artists in residence of the Utrecht Early Music Festival: Vox Luminis. They had joined forces with La Fénice and conductor Jean Tubéri. Together they performed parts of Henry Purcell and John Dryden’s semi-opera “King Arthur”.

Somehow, this mix of professionals and the English semi-opera resulted in a performance which more than “popped”. When Vox Luminis and la Fénice had finished, there were loud whoops from their public, the now usual cat-calls and whistles of approval, as well as a standing ovation which seemed to go on and on.

The ovation did stop: when Jean Tubéri addressed his grateful public. He reminded them he had been at previous versions of the Utrecht Early Music Festival. In fact, he told them, he had been there as a humble young flutist. And of course, he did not mind treating his public to an encore. Well: that was even better than a cherry on a cake!

The whole experience had been overwhelming. For the early English opera differs greatly from the kind of opera we are now used to. It incorporated masques derived from the courtly ones in which amateur aristocrats and royals took part at the English court. It also has spoken dialogues or parts.

This semi-opera also resembled plays like for instance Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s dream” in having shepherds and country bumpkins, as well as a courtly world mixing with a fantasy one populated by deities, elves, and personifications like Britannica. Excerpts from Act one right up to the end of Act three were performed before the break. Excerpts from the last two Acts came after the break.

For once, there was an extremely enthusiastic, knowledgeable and intelligent reviewer sitting next to the one who ensures radio listeners at home know what is going on. The day after the performance, people who had heard the performance on radio stations where ms Katherina Lindekens could be heard giving explanations and comments on “King Arthur”, were still raving about her.

What a difference her comments, critical remarks, explanations had made. But then, ms Lindekens had lectured on the theme of Restoration Opera during the Early Music Festival summer school. She is also researching these operas and the manner in which they were staged and performed in 17th century England. One can only hope that ms Lindekens will make regular appearances during future Early Music Festivals in Utrecht.

In case you missed the performance and were also barred from listening to it on various radio stations throughout Europe: this King Arthur has little in common with the King Arthur of the medieval romances and legends. For a start, this Arthur is engaged to the Cornish princess Emmeline; there is no Guinevere. His rival is King Oswald, who kidnaps Emmeline. Roman and Norse deities, Merlin, enchanted woods, as well as elves and a great many other characters meddle in affairs. Nevertheless, it all ends well: Arthur gets his girl and  “merges” his kingdom with that of Oswald.

This is a kind of PR, for the opera for which Purcell wrote the music and Dryden the texts, was intended to premiere at a royal court. It was created for a performance at the court of King Charles II. It seems the opera touched upon the problem of who should succeed him, if he died. When he died unexpectedly, he was succeeded by his brother and this opera was shelved. As mentioned in a previous blogpost, there followed some family difficulties which were more or less resolved by the Glorious Revolution. With English Queen Mary II and Dutch King William on the English throne, the opera was updated and finally premiered in 1691. So perhaps the “merger” referred to these monarchs being in charge of two countries or regions.

The opera was clearly created for a courtly public.The bawdy scenes would have gone down well with Charles II. At this performance, the majority of the public in the great hall of Tivoli-Vredenburg probably did not grasp the highly explicit sexual scenes, or terribly bawdy and lecherous texts sung or spoken. One has to have some experience with bawdy tavern songs, poetry and plays of say a Rochester, Aphra Behn and other Restoration poets, to quickly grasp double meanings in some scenes, like the one with the “seductive sirens”.

Vox Luminis had given a good but not-that-mind-blowing concert during the festival, while performing music for Queen Mary II.  This evening, their performance was a thorough surprise and outdid the previous one. The combination of Vox Luminis and La Fénice simply bubbled, sparkled, literally and figuratively “popped”! It was as if a heady champagne had been uncorked. It was an impressive performance and an evening, not easy forgotten. If only more of such spectacular early operas or semi-operas are to be performed by this combination at future Utrecht Early Music Festivals!

La Fenice and Vox Lumini, conductor Jean Tubéri, 31st August 2015, Utrecht Tivoli-Vredenburg

Youtube La Fénice performing “Fairest Isle” from “King Arthur”
Youtube La Fénice performing “Hornpipe” from “King Arthur”
Youtube Vox Luminis and La Fénice in “King Arthur” at the Utrecht Early Music Festival 2015

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