Opera Scotland

King Arthur 2018Dundee University Music Society

Read more about the opera King Arthur 2

This was a hugely enterprising revival by Graeme Stevenson and the Dundee University students. Smieton was a highly-trained and well-regarded local composer in late Victorian times, but his business commitments prevented him from devoting much time to his hobby. Even so, his reputation meant that this Dramatic Cantata received 100 performances around Britain between its premiere in 1889 and the composer's early death in 1904.

It was, as expected, a fascinating event. It is tempting to make comparisons with the work of contemporaries. Of his fellow Scots, we still have little enough knowledge of compositions by Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Hamish MacCunn. Of well-known British composers, Sullivan would also be an obvious point to start, and perhaps Stanford. However, on a first hearing (and King Arthur is certainly good enough for us to be able to hope realistically for a second) none of these seems entirely apposite. Perhaps there are some aspects reminiscent of Gounod. Smieton did not train in Germany, but even so, given the subject matter, the relative lack of Wagnerian influence seemed surprising.

Nor was there any trace of the style of Sir Edward Elgar, another contemporary who grew up in a comparative musical backwater. The concert began with two of that composer's Pomp and Circumstance marches, separated by four purely vocal madrigals from the late Elizabethan collection known as The Triumphs of Oriana. In the event, enjoyable as these items were, they proved completely unnecessary, in a lengthy programme which only finished a few minutes before ten. The cantata lasted fully ninety minutes, quite enough for an evening, and the performance, enjoyable as it was, would no doubt have benefited from the extra rehearsal time that would have resulted from its being performed on its own.

The cantata is episodic, with the librettist selecting certain scenes from the story that was highly familiar and much-loved by his contemporaries. James Smieton is not a writer of the quality of Tennyson, even if many in Sunday's audience will have had childhood memories of The Lady of Shallott and Morte d'Arthur.

The episodes chosen for the first part were Arthur's courtship of Guinevere after his defeat of the Saxon raiders, his retrieval, with Merlin's help, of the sword Excalibur, and the consequent marriage. The second part, taking place several years later, includes a dramatically-composed battle scene (a second Saxon invasion), in which Arthur, while again victorious, is mortally wounded, and instructs Sir Bedivere to throw the sword back in the lake, whereupon three mysterious queens on a barge take him into their care. Of the episodes with Lancelot and the treachery of Mordred there is no sign. This perhaps reduces the dramatic conflict in the story, but then it is a cantata, not an opera, and a full treatment would have been less likely to achieve performance. The Smieton brothers were clearly realists.

The orchestration of the piece is most attractive, repaying the labour of conductor Graeme Stevenson, who transcribed all the orchestral parts from two copies of the full score (held by the Royal Academy of Music in London). Even better is the quality of much of the writing for the choir, especially the mystic voices emanating from the lake when Arthur is given the sword and when Sir Bedivere eventually returns it. The choral fugue, it must be said, did seem to be there more as an obligatory display of expertise rather than for any dramatic purpose.

The quality of the performance, though certainly good enough to be enjoyed, was a bit mixed. As suggested above, more rehearsal time would have been useful. However choir and orchestra threw themselves into the exhumation of this completely unfamiliar work with a will, and there were many beautiful moments. Tenor James Slimings, a young professional who has appeared several times in the Caird Hall, gave a highly effective performance in the title role, while Steph Baker projected Guinevere's soaring lines with clarity. A second soprano emerged briefly from the chorus to contribute effectively to the final apotheosis. Baritone Calum Green sang accurately, though both his characters ideally require a more trenchant projection of their contributions.

In all, then, a fascinating revival, by no means just of local interest. Let us hope that the future holds further performances of King Arthur as well as the opportunity for further exploration of the work of this forgotten voice of British music.

Performance DatesKing Arthur 2018

Map List

Caird Hall | Dundee

25 Mar, 19.30

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