Henry Purcell - King Arthur
Sestina, Belfast, 2014
Mark Chambers, Thomas Guthrie, Sinead O'Kelly, Aaron O'Hare, Michael Bell, Emer Acton, Caroline Jones, Brian McAlea, Fiona Flynn, Matthew Keighley, Laura Lamph, David Lee, Laura McFall, Joseph Zubier, David Walsh, Michael Hong
Ulster Museum, Belfast - 25 April 2014
Putting on a performance of an opera that is over 300 years old presents a number of challenges for any company, so the achievement of Sestina's quite stunning one-off Belfast performance of Purcell's King Arthur is all the more impressive. Created by Paul McCreesh and led by Mark Chambers, Sestina's aim is to train and give experience to young singers on historically informed productions of Baroque music. There's surely no better way to test and display the qualities of young voices working in harmony than to set them to a piece by Monteverdi or Purcell.
No better way, but a challenging one nonetheless. To set and exposing a voice like a jewel in a crown as these works do, there needs to be considerable thought given over to the nature of the work itself and finding the best means of presenting it to a modern audience. Purcell's music provides the most glorious opportunities for the voice, but a work like King Arthur, a 'dramatick opera' or semi-opera written by the composer in 1791, comes with a great deal of historical baggage and period conventions that could be confusing to a present-day audience. A way must be found to modernise the work without destroying the integrity of the work and its arrangements.
In the case of King Arthur, John Dryden's drama (as a semi-opera, the work is essentially a drama with music and songs) was written as a patriotic call-to-arms and a celebration of the commercial productivity of the British Isles. As such it is tied up very much with the sentiments of the day, originally intended to celebrate the royal court, but eventually reworked to inspire, rouse and entertain a paying public. This has the benefit then, as far as Sestina and the general public of today are concerned, of being filled with all the variety and richness of Purcell's writing and experience, making it still very much a thrilling and engaging piece of music, if not quite so accessible as a drama.
How then do you retain that vibrancy and retain a meaningful context for King Arthur without it being buried in the obscure language and historical references of Dryden's drama? Thomas Guthrie's production finds an almost ideal solution, and one that is of particular topical interest on the occasion of its centenary year, in the trenches of the Great War. It's hard to visualise how the battles between the Britons and Saxons might have played out, or indeed really take-in Dryden and Purcell's allegories for their time, but the war in the trenches brings with it a more relatable sense of the savagery and horrors of traditional warfare. It also provides a wider perspective on human nature with considerable resonance for how it affected the ordinary people who fought in it and the profound impact it had back home on British society.
Guthrie's setting doesn't follow any straightforward narrative that mirrors Dryden's dramatic line, but it manages to fit in very well with the sentiments expressed in the songs that are the true heart of Purcell's King Arthur. Using reference works ('In Parenthesis' by David Jones) and original letters from soldiers on the front-line, Sestina's production presents an informed view of the war from the perspective of three couples in a way that covers the full richness and variety of Purcell's writing. One of the couples is a Major and his wife, the other is a Private and his young bride, while the third offers a necessarily more abstract and all-encompassing view of the situation on the front by using dancers to portray a soldier and a nurse.
This works wonderfully, capturing the very real sentiments expressed in the music and in the words of the libretto, from the necessity of building up one's courage to face unknown dangers and horrors, to the physical agony endured in extreme conditions during war. It opens this up to deal with the pain felt by ordinary people - on the front and at home - separated from and in many cases losing the ones they love. Even in the best of times, in moments of shared friendship, companionship, love and small victories, those feelings have a fragile hold and are tempered by the greater reality, and this is expressed simply, beautifully and touchingly in the gorgeous arrangements and in the singing.
At times, the match to the original work is very well achieved. The troops here are not laid astray on the battlefield by Sirens of mythology, but by the shock of bombardment and the terror of very real night-time horrors, yet even here, they are able to relate this to WWI supernatural legends like the Angel of Mons. Scenes too such as the famous Frost Scene also take on a suitably harrowing aspect as snow falls on the battlefields, but considerable attention is clearly paid elsewhere to how the instruments work specifically with the voices to create nuance of mood. There's some wonderful work from Sestina here, using period instruments, particularly with Paula Chateauneuf on Archlute, David Adams on harpsichord and Jonny Byers on cello, holding down the all-important basso continuo.
Every note rang out true within the acoustic of the open high ceiling of the atrium of the Ulster Museum. The fact that there was considerable reverb was evident when a solo voice was singing, enhancing the choral work and the ensemble playing, but also revealing the incredible beauty of each instrument as well as the beautiful timbre and harmonising of the voices. Thomas Guthrie performed as narrator and sung with a fine tenor voice as Private Bell, but the purity of tone of the young singers was astonishing and perfectly suited to the nature of the work. Aaron O'Hare's delicate soft baritone brought added poignancy to a fallen soldier in the first half of the performance while Sinead O'Kelly's soaring soprano mustered up the strength of soldiers and chorus through the rousing drinking-songs in the post-interval section. The harmonised singing of Emer Acton and Caroline Jones was also breathtakingly good, but typical of the superb management and coaching of voices across the board here.
The voices and how they interact and harmonise with the musical instruments is of vital importance then, and that's managed extremely well by musical director Mark Chambers. In such a work, where improvisation and interpretation plays no small part, he has to be constantly alert to mood and situation and ensure that it comes together as it should, and that includes reacting to the unusual acoustics of the venue. The unconventional location also presented some difficulties for seating placement and enabling stage entrances and exits, but it proved to be a beautifully intimate setting that not only allowed the audience the opportunity to experience the beauty of a small Baroque orchestra, but to feel genuinely engaged in the experience.