King Arthur or, The British Worthy
(Z. 628), is an opera
in five acts composed by Henry Purcell
by John Dryden
The opera was first performed at the Queen's Theatre, Dorset Garden, London, in late May or early June of 1691.
The plot is based on the battles between King Arthur's Britons and the Saxons, rather than the legends of Camelot (although Merlin does make an appearance). It is a Restoration spectacular , including such supernatural characters as Cupid and Venus plus references to the Germanic gods of the Saxons, Woden, Thor, and Freya. The tale centres on Arthur's endeavours to recover his fiancée, the blind Cornish Princess Emmeline, who has been abducted by his arch-enemy, the Saxon King Oswald of Kent.
King Arthur is a dramatic-opera or semi-opera in that the principal characters do not sing, except if they are supernatural, pastoral or, in the case of Comus and the popular "Your hay it is mow'd", drunk. Secondary characters sing to them, usually as diegetic entertainment, but in Act 4 and parts of Act 2, as supernatural beckonings. The singing in Act 1 is religious observance by the Saxons, ending with their heroic afterlife in Valhalla. The protagonists are actors, as a great deal of King Arthur consists of spoken text. This was normal practice in 17th century English opera. King Arthur contains some of Purcell's most lyrical music, much of it inspired by French dance rhythms and adventurous (for the day) harmonies.
- King Arthur. Mr. Betterton.
- Oswald, King of Kent, a Saxon and a Heathen. Mr. Williams.
- Conon, Duke of Cornwal, Tributary to King Arthur. Mr. Hodgson.ς
- Merlin, a famous Inchanter. Mr. Kynaston.
- Osmond, a Saxon Magician, and a Heathen. Mr. Sandford.
- Auelius, Friend to Arthur. Mr. Alexander.
- Albanaci, Captain of Arthur's Guards. Mr. Bowen.
- Guillamar, Friend to Oswald. Mr. Harris.
- Emmeline, Daughter of Conon. Mrs. Bracegirdle.
- Matilda, her Attendant. Mrs. Richardson.
- Philidel, an Airy Spirit. Mrs. Butler.ς
- Grimbald, an Earthy Spirit. Mr. Bowman.ς
Officers and Soldiers, Singers and Dancers, &c.
Singing-only roles (in order of appearance):
- Saxon Priests, one played by John Bowman
- Two Valkyries
- Shepherds and Shepherdesses
- Cupid, Charlotte Butler
- Cold Genius
- Two Sirens
- Three Nymphs
- He (in Mr. Howe's song)
- She (in Mr. Howe's song)
ςDenotes a role that requires both singing and speaking.
On the eve of their battle against the Britons under Arthur, the Saxons along with Arthur and his Emmeline are introduced. The Saxons are led by Oswald, King of Kent and his magician Osmond. They sacrifice in the first musical scene and the battle begins.
The bad Spirit Grimbald tries to lead Arthur's army astray, but Philidel, the good Spirit prevents this. The scene changes to show Emmeline, who is entertained by singing shepherds and shepherdesses. Then she and her attendant Matilda are captured by the Saxons. Grimbald is captured in a net of flames by Philidel.
begins, becoming a play within a play. It is chiefly concerned with how true love can thaw the frigid heart. Purcell's music here is at its most evocative. Quivering, almost shivering, notes suit the icy atmosphere of the scene. The source of Purcell's inspiration for this cold chorus was Lully
's music for the fifth act of the opera Isis
(1677). Osmond frees Grimbald to assist in the ravishment.
Arthur and Merlin continue to look for Emmeline. Two Daughters of this Aged Stream
, standing in the water who "shew themselves to the waste [sic]
," try to seduce Arthur from his quest. They fail. Arthur slices a tree and makes it bleed. It is Emmeline in a trap, and after much hesitation, not sure if she is really Emmeline or an illusion to betray him, he frees her.
The plot is resolved in favor of the Bold Britons, and Arthur offers his rival Oswald peace. Osmond is taken to the dungeon, which is fine with him so as to be nearer to Grimbald. The play ends with a nationalistic masque, including Fairest Isle
, performed by Venus
. The plot contains an allegory
of the contemporary political situation in England during the reign of William and Mary
, as can be seen from the reference to Dutch William as Foreign Kings adopted here
in the concluding song. There is also a lengthy love song, which Dryden places in large letters is by a Mr. Howe.
- King Arthur St Anthony Singers, Philomusica of London, conducted by Sir Anthony Lewis (Decca)
- King Arthur English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (Erato, 1985)
- King Arthur Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie (Erato, 1995)
- King Arthur The English Concert and Choir, Trevor Pinnock (Archiv, 1999)
- King Arthur Le Concert Spirituel, conducted by Hervé Niquet (Glossa, 2004)
Bibliography and references
- Davies, H. Neville, "King Arthur: or, The British Worthy" in Henry Purcell's Operas, The Complete Texts, ed. Michael Burden, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000.
- Dent, Edward J. Foundations of English Opera, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1928.
- van Lennep et.al. [eds] William, The London Stage, parts 1 (1965) and 2 (1959), Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale.
- Moore, R. E. Henry Purcell and the Restoration Theatre, Greenwood Press, Westport CT, 1961.
- Price, Curtis A. Henry Purcell and the London Stage,Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984.
- Sawkins, Lionel, "trembleurs and Cold People: How Should They Shiver?" ,Performing the Music of Henry Purcell ed. Michael Burden, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996.