Opera Scotland

King Arthur 2013Edinburgh Studio Opera

Read more about the opera King Arthur

The musical quality of Henry Purcell's semi-operas has long been recognized. The difficulty has always lain around the stageworthiness of these works in their original form. Most of the drama is carried on in spoken dialogue, and the musical interludes do not generally involve those dramatic characters. So, for instance, in King Arthur, the titular King, his queen Emmeline, Merlin and the various forces of evil pitched against him, do not appear in any musical form. The operatic elements are of an allegorical nature.

Soon after it was established in 1968, Edinburgh University Opera Club, the fore-runner of ESO, had a fair stab at staging an authentic production of The Fairy Queen, uniting singers, actors and dancers in a joint venture with the University's English Department - read about this production of Purcell's Fairy Queen. More recently there have been large-scale professional attempts at staging that, and other, works, most notably King Arthur in France and The Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne.

This production was an extremely enjoyable and worthwhile attempt at producing an entirely musical entertainment based on the idea of performing the musical sections grouped thematically. For instance a weather sequence gathered several numbers into an effective Four Seasons. The show had the title King Arthur and Sundry Other Musick from the Genius of Mr Henry Purcell. Not only did we hear the great music from King Arthur, two of the most familiar solo numbers being 'Fairest Isle' and the Frost Song of the Cold Genius. Songs were also tactfully interpolated from other pieces - 'Come all ye songsters', 'Sound the trumpet', 'Arise, ye subterranean winds', I come to sing great Zempoalla's story' (in this case the Indian Queen was tactfully changed to Britannia). Altogether it was full of wonderful stuff.

The musical performance was on a very high level. Eighteen singers formed a beautifully integrated choir, emerging for solos or duets as required. The company has some excellent voices, too many to list them all, but Katrina Nimmo was outstanding as Philidel and Venus (who sings 'Fairest Isle'). Other highlights included Sam Jenkins and Ben Babington-Tambling in 'Sound the trumpet'; Benjamin Ellis in 'Arise, ye subterranean winds'; Angela Estrada in 'Then follow brave boys' (spectacularly costumed as Bellona); Emma Roberta Aitken and Marina Abel Smith in 'Two daughters of this aged stream'.

The band was ideally proportioned with string quintet backed by pairs of recorders, oboes, trumpets and harpsichords. The entertainment was framed by the director reciting delightfully scurrilous prologue and epilogue (completely appropriate for Restoration comedy). Period-style choreography was provided by Hugh Hillyard-Parker, who was also effective in the frost scene. The entire presentation made much of little in terms of resources.

Any quibbles? For the many in the audience who will have encountered these works for the first time, the title may still be a bit of a mystery, for of Arthur there was not a trace. Those who were knowledgeable about Purcell may have been distracted by trying to identify sources for the non-Arthurian numbers. And the finale was a bit of an anachronism - an extremely familiar composition by Dr Arne from several decades later (and from a work about a later monarch, King Alfred).

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Performance DatesKing Arthur 2013

Map List

Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh | Edinburgh

27 Feb, 19.30 1 Mar, 19.30 2 Mar, 19.30

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