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Music Review

Narration makes for majestic 'King Arthur'

Martin Pearlman conducted the score by Henry Purcell. Martin Pearlman conducted the score by Henry Purcell. (Eric Antoniou/file)
Email|Print| Text size + By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / March 3, 2008

John Dryden wrote his play "King Arthur" in 1684, but it wasn't until seven years later that Henry Purcell added a series of musical numbers to the drama. The play tells the story of Arthur's defeat of the warring Saxons in the fifth century. It has no Camelot, no knights, and no round table, which may partly explain why it survives in the public imagination only through its link to Purcell's score, which history has deemed to be of greater lasting value.

Groups often dispense with the drama entirely when performing "King Arthur." For its performances this past weekend, Boston Baroque substituted a spoken narrative crafted by Laurence Senelick of Tufts University that mixed text from the play, stage directions, and Senelick's own verse. It was further adapted by poet Robert Pinsky, who served as narrator.

Early in Friday's performance, Pinsky solemnly promised an evening "full of spectacle, song, and magic." That the performance delivered on the promise is a testament, first, to Purcell's score - an inexhaustible fount of invention and variety. Much of it is an assemblage of dances, songs, and choral numbers that move the plot along. Other portions are masques - entertainments within the drama itself. One of the best known of the masques is the "Frost Scene" in Act III, when the evil sorcerer Osmond conjures a wintry scene before Arthur's love, Emmeline. The music, full of icy tremolos, constitutes some of the simplest yet most effective tone painting in the Baroque era.

It was a shrewd move to jettison the play and use the Senelick-Pinsky narration. Not only did it lend dramatic coherence to what would have otherwise been simply a sequence of musical numbers, but the sly, witty text brought Dryden's antediluvian drama into the present. Pinsky used the entire range of his resonant baritone to project the play's cadre of characters, though one wished that his voice had been amplified more clearly.

Martin Pearlman led a lucid and animated performance. Both chorus and orchestra were in exceptional form; trumpeters Jesse Levine and Robinson Pyle made heroic contributions.

Soprano Kristen Watson and baritone David Kravitz were the standouts among the vocal soloists; tenor Marc Molomot was impressive as well. Soprano Sara Heaton offered an elegantly restrained version of Act V's famous "Fairest Isle" song. Less genteel but equally engaging was the lusty rendition of that act's "Chorus of Peasants" by Kravitz and a group of male choristers, who adopted appropriately rustic accents and waved tiny British flags at the end. It was a fine entertainment, in the best Baroque sense.

Boston Baroque

Martin Pearlman, music director

At: Jordan Hall, Friday

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