Why don’t people get more excited about Henry Purcell? Maybe it’s because he wrote more stage music than opera, and the texts he set were in English, which in the 17th and 18th centuries was definitely not the way to get your work before an international audience. Ah well. Them’s the breaks, I guess.
Like The Fairy Queen, King Arthur is a play (text by Dryden! Are we excited? We’re excited!) with extended musical interludes and dances. The main human characters in the drama do not sing; the music is reserved for the chorus, magical creatures like the fairy Philidel, a few allegorical personages like Love, and mythological/allegorical/whatever figures who sing some of the big numbers like “fairest isle.” It’s sort of a not-opera in some ways. Rather than the music and the drama being one and the same, with the characters expressed at least as much in the music as in the text, the music in this case is a little more set to one side. Much of the drama takes place in the form of spoken dialog. Sometimes the songs are part of the story, like Philidel’s “hither this way” where he/she is trying to lead Arthur and his followers in the right direction, or the part later on where two sirens try to dissuade Arthur from his mission to save Emmeline (this is perhaps not exactly the ‘King Arthur’ story many of us are familiar with). The music and the story often become one in the scenes dominated by magic – e.g. the ‘frost’ scene in Act III where an evil magician causes a winter to fall over the land, until the snow is melted by the arrival of Love. (It’s worth noting that Merlin’s magic wand is . . . a conductor’s baton.) Music in this work seems most often to be something the human characters witness or get mixed up in, not something they are. So not a ‘not-opera’ I guess, but rather a work where the distinction between music and drama is sliced a little differently than it is in other styles of opera.
I mentioned a person named Emmeline. Those who read The Sword in the Stone as little children or The Mists of Avalon as impressionable twelve-year-olds or had to slog through Le Morte d’Arthur in college may be wondering who the hell Emmeline is and/or what happens to the grail. Is there a “sword in a rock” song? Alas, there is no “sword in a rock” song – there is no sword in a rock. There is not even a sword-in-the-rock-shaped beacon. Dryden came up with the story himself based on a number of different sources. Arthur, a Christian Briton, is at war with Oswald, a pagan Saxon. Arthur is in love with Emmeline, the daughter of his general Conon. Arthur and Oswald go to war, Arthur with the magical help of Merlin and his Ariel-like assistant Philidel and Oswald with the magical help of the evil Osmond (this is one of those cases where names that sounded different would really be quite useful). Emmeline and her guardian Matilda follow after Arthur, Emmeline is captured by the enemy, and Arthur has to rescue her. In the end Arthur and Oswald duke it out, Arthur wins, and the Saxons and the Britons agree to be friends. Also, Emmeline is blind, but Merlin gives Philidel a magical potion to give her that restores her sight.
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