Opera Scotland

King Arthur 2

Music

John More Smieton (born Broughty Ferry, 21 June 1857; died Broughty Ferry, 13 July 1904)

Text

James Smieton (1854-1926)

Source

The History of the Britons (c1136) by Geoffrey of Monmouth (d1155) and Le Morte d'Arthur attributed to Sir Thomas Malory (d1471).

 

Premieres

First Performance (private): Broughty Ferry (Dunmore Villa), 27 March 1888.

First Performance (public): Broughty Ferry (Volunteer Hall), 3 December 1889.

 

Background

John More Smieton was a member of a prosperous family of jute manufacturers. He studied music privately in Dundee then later in Edinburgh, Manchester and London. However the early death of his father in 1886 obliged him to work running the family jute business in Carnoustie in partnership with his brother James, a poet. Even with his time for composition so restricted, he still produced songs and piano solos as well as choral settings and one orchestral overture. However, he produced no symphonies, concertos or operas.

The Dramatic Cantata form was extremely popular in late Victorian times, examples including Sullivan (The Golden Legend)  Mackenzie (The Rose of Sharon) and Elgar (Caractacus, King Olaf). Smieton had one early attempt, Pearl, and as a mature composer produced three to libretti by his brother. These are Ariadne (1884), King Arthur (1889) and Connla (1900). It was King Arthur that enjoyed particular success, receiving 100 performances around the UK by the time of the composer's death (from throat cancer).

Smieton's original scores are archived in London, at the Royal Academy of Music, and this was the only source for the orchestration of King Arthur. For the revival in 2018, conductor Graeme Stevenson was able to copy a set of orchestral parts from this source. The vocal score, having been much-published (in at least eleven editions) was more readily available.

The legend of King Arthur was a popular subject in Victorian times, with pre-Raphaelite paintings, Tennyson's poetry and a suite of incidental music by Sullivan for Sir Henry Irving. However the most successful opera from this time is French - Ernest Chausson's Le Roi Arthus. It is a thoroughly enjoyable piece, though suffers from comparison with Wagner - Lancelot, Guinevere and Arthur are too similar to Tristan, Isolde and King Mark.

 

Characters

King Arthur (tenor)

Merlin, a wizard (baritone)

Guinevere (soprano)

Sir Bedivere, a knight (baritone)

A Queen (soprano)

 

Summary

Part One - Arthur is greeted on his return to Camelot from a victory over the Saxons. He vows to live a life of peace and intends to marry Guinevere, daughter of a neighbouring king, to help secure this. Guinevere insists that he must first obtain the sword Excalibur from the Enchanted Lake. He seeks Merlin's help, and the wizard reluctantly agrees. Arthur and Merlin journey to the lake, and at the full moon row towards a rocky islet. As mysterious spirit-voices sing, an arm appears from the water brandishing the sword. Arthur takes it, and on his return is married to Guinevere.

Part Two - Several years later, a further invasion by the Saxons occurs and Arthur sets off to face them. In his marching tent Arthur is warned by Merlin of impending disaster. News comes of his nephew Mordred's defection to the enemy. Camelot has been captured and Guinevere abducted. In the battle the following day Arthur fights Mordred and kills him, but is mortally wounded in the process. He commands his knight, Sir Bedivere, to cast his sword into the lake. On his return the knight says nothing happened and Arthur orders him to do it once again. A second time the knight fails and says nothing happened. Only when he does actually hurl it into the lake does he see the arm emerge, catch it and pull it below the surface. The mysterious spirit choirs sing as a boat then appears from the mist, carrying three queens. Arthur is led aboard and borne off to Avalon.

The Cast

Guinevere
 
King Arthur
 
Merlin
 a magician
Queen
 
Sir Bedivere
 a knight

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