Purcell: King Arthur

Purcell: King Arthur
Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier
Alpha Classics. Alpha 430. 2CDs 57’41+40’18

It is often assumed that English opera started with Handel, and missed out on the entire 17th-century development of opera. This is probably due to that very English concept of semi-opera, with musical bits and bobs inserted into a play, with the music based around the supporting cast, rather than the key personnel.  Although, some of the famous bits from Purcell are known but, apart from Dido and Aeneas, we rarely hear the complete music of The Fairy Queen or King Arther. Rarer still is a performance that includes the spoken text of the plays in which the music was performed. I remember the bemused looks on Glyndebourne faces as their Fairy Queen opened with around 45 minutes of spoken text. This outstanding recording, from the distinguished Belgian consort Vox Luminis and their director Lionel Meunier will help to bring more attention to the world of 17th-century English semi-opera. Musically, King Arthur is gorgeous, Dryden’s text creating several moments for Purcell to weave his magic with.

The plot is based around the (arguably) mythical King Arthur and his leadership of the Briton in battle against the Saxons after their King, Oswald of Kent, had captured Arthur’s fiancée Emmeline, a Cornish Princess. It was probably first performed in 1691, although the libretto dates from around eight years earlier. Complicated political times around the 1688 Glorious Revolution had affected both Purcell and Dryden, the former moving from Court activities to the stage, notably with the 1690 production of Dioclesian.

The singing of Vox Luminis is spot-on, with notable solo contributions from Sophie Junker, Zsuzsi Tóth, Stefanie True, and Marcus Farnsworth. The full cast list cast can be seen here.  The instrumentalists are on similar top form, led by Cecilia Bernardini, violin. Lionel Meunier’s direction, which I know from seeing Vox Luminis on many occasions, is beautifully subtle, is intelligent and intensely musical.

On one track I noticed flexibility of pulse, but then realised that the song was Grimaldi’s Let not a moon-born elf mislead you, with its refrain of “Hurry, hurry, hurry on. This perhaps reflects the fact that Vox Luminis have toured this as a staged piece, including during their residency at the 2017 Aldeburgh Festival. It was recorded in AMUZ, Antwerp (a Baroque church converted into a fine concert hall), but there is no evidence that it is a ‘live’ recording.

Whether or not you are familiar with the piece, or with the concept of the English late 17th-century semi-opera, this recording is essential listening,