Magic and Deception in ‘King Arthur’

Thursday, Jan 12, 2023
Juilliard Journal
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By Thomas May

Klaus Nomi, Sting, and the Pet Shop Boys are just some of the artists who have covered (or adapted) the most famous number from Henry Purcell’s King Arthur: the so-called “Cold Song” (“What Power Art Thou”), which depicts the spirit of winter’s shivery awakening from slumber. But the chance to experience a performance of the entire score rarely comes around. Which makes it all the more worth saving the date for the Historical Performance/Vocal Arts production of King Arthur on February 11.

“Purcell had a huge talent for writing melodies, and a lot of them really stick in your head,” Lionel Meunier, who’s directing and conducting the production, recently told the Journal. A Belgian singer-conductor who founded the artistic ensemble Vox Luminis, Meunier previously collaborated with Juilliard415 on an all-Handel program in 2018.

Focus on Lionel Meunier, with students around him, observing a rehearsal in a classroom
Lionel Meunier

Calling King Arthur “an exciting and entertaining piece,” Meunier noted that the most memorable parts of the score “are not necessarily only for the singers. They can be in the orchestral music as well.” With such a generosity of riches, it’s an ideal project for collaboration across Juilliard’s departments. Juilliard415 and Juilliard Vocal Arts will join forces for the semistaged production and will be joined by two drama students, with dialogue written by a Juilliard playwriting alumna.

King Arthur, first staged in 1691—just four years before Purcell died, at 36—combines singing and instrumental music with speaking parts for actors and dancing. “I was hoping we could include a dance element, too, since there’s quite a lot of dance music. That was one piece that grew to be too complicated to plug into the project,” said Robert Mealy, the director of the Historical Performance program. “But you will certainly hear the ballet music.”

Unlike the better-known Dido and Aeneas, the English composer’s only through-sung opera, King Arthur is classified as a “semi-opera” because it interweaves musical sections with a spoken play. The genre emerged during England’s Restoration period (1660-88), but its interdisciplinary quality has a fresh resonance for contemporary artists eager to cross boundaries.

Purcell collaborated with the poet and playwright John Dryden, whose libretto, despite the title, is not based on what you might expect from Arthurian legend. “There’s no Camelot, no swords being pulled out of stones,” Mealy said. Instead, the story revolves around the conflict between Arthur and the leader of the pagan Saxons over the love of the blind Princess Emmeline.

Magic and deception figure prominently as each side battles the other. The unfolding spells provide some of the occasions for Purcell’s musical interpolations (including the “Cold Song”). In fact, the supernatural figures are represented by singers, whereas the chief characters in the plot (including those of Arthur, his rival Oswald, Emmeline, and Merlin and his counterpart magician) are entirely spoken roles. In the late 17th century, thanks to England’s deeply skeptical attitude toward opera, actors ranked higher in status than singers.

King Arthur is very much a piece of extravagance and spectacle, the last work in magic,” Mealy said. “It was designed to be performed in one of the best-equipped theaters in all of Europe, which could present some of the best special effects around. Alice Tully is not a space that lends itself to trapdoors and flying machines, but we have commissioned the video artist Camilla Tassi to create real- time video projections, which will add an endlessly shifting series of evocative backdrops for the production”

“What I love is that all of the singers become stars through the music assigned to them”

And the rich colors conveyed by Purcell’s score cast a spell of their own. “It’s such a varied show,” Mealy said, “and it celebrates all kinds of instruments. We’ll use the full Juilliard415 ensemble along with the singers.”

Purcell’s combination of bold invention with England’s musical-theatrical masque tradition as well as with international opera styles of the time—especially the practice of French baroque opera—gives the music a special flavor. Mealy was delighted that Meunier was committed to performing the entire score. “Often you end up with a very abridged version of greatest hits,” Mealy said. “But this is the whole thing. There are so many fantastic moments that people forget about.”

Along with the complicated casting that King Arthur’s division into musicians and actors entails, one reason complete performances are so rare is the nature of Dryden’s text. The layers of allegorical political and religious meaning, culminating in an elaborate masque celebrating British identity, don’t speak in the same way to contemporary audiences. In a production of King Arthur with Vox Luminus—with which he’s also recorded the work— Meunier solved the problem by creating a touring, semistaged version in which singers share the roles, while the spoken play is distilled into a freshly scripted narration delivered by an actor.

Which brings us to the involvement of the Drama Division. To further enhance the cross-departmental collaboration, Mealy engaged Margot Connolly (Playwrights ’20) to rewrite the script and find a "new way of looking at this story.”

Connolly, who was still in the conceptual stage of the project when this article was going to press, plans to provide a narration spoken by two drama students. “I’m looking at the character of Emmeline as a narrator in her own story. She’s the witness to all of these events, even though in the text she’s blind,” she said. “What does this perspective from the person who was there but didn’t technically see what happened mean?” Regarding Purcell’s music, Connolly says she admires how it has “moments that feel like they’re storytelling for nonvisual people.”

Observing that Purcell doesn’t differentiate the importance of the singers’ roles in King Arthur (principals versus secondary characters) in a way that later became standardized in the repertoire, Meunier said, “what I love most about the piece is that all of the singers become stars through the music assigned to them.” Meunier hopes to be able to instill the students with an intensely collaborative spirit: “My job as the director is to be there for them and give them things they might be able to use for the future.” 

Thomas May, who writes about the arts for a variety of publications, is the English-language editor for the Lucerne Festival and has written books about Wagner and John Adams

This production of King Arthur is supported by a special gift from Norman S. Benzaquen, a baroque music lover whose Norman Benzaquen Career Grants for Music have been awarded to 49 Juilliard graduates since 2015