Real opera has always been a tough sell in England’s vaunted cultural milieu. Poor George Frederick Handel lavished a dozen splendid Italian operas on the London public in his first decade of British residence, and then the fickle Londoners jilted Handel and his opera company—driving it into bankruptcy—for the musical trifle of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, arguably the first musical comedy.
A generation before Handel, Henry Purcell understood the aesthetic limitations of his fellow countrymen, and wisely wrote what are now called semi-operas, stage works in which the main characters engage exclusively in spoken dialogue, but the common folk, nymphs, and minor deities (e.g. Cupid) sing. The Bach Collegium San Diego (BCSD), San Diego’s estimable early music ensemble, presented a thrilling concert version of the music Purcell wrote for his 1691 semi-opera King Arthur Friday, May 3, at Point Loma’s All Souls’ Episcopal Church.
Without the slightest cavil, King Arthur is a brilliant score, replete with some of Purcell’s most infectious, elegantly structured instrumental movements—variously called overture, prelude, chaconne or passacaglia—which the 19 period instruments under the astute direction of BCSD Artistic Director Ruben Valenzuela performed with vigor, stylistic insight, and admirable ensemble. Similarly, Valenzuela’s 12-member chorus produced a fresh, vibrant sonority that energized King Arthur’s significant choral components down to the shortest refrain with refreshing clarity and zeal.
Of BCSD’s four principal soloists, soprano Clara Rottsolk and baritone Sumner Thompson stood out individually, and their duets together soared even higher. Although Rottsolk was assigned several roles, her Cupid in Act 3—especially the aria “”Tis I, “tis I”—and Rottsolk’s Honour in Act 5—the noble aria “Saint George, the patron of our isle”—proved resplendent; her volleys of fioritura sparkled, and her upper range gleamed with unforced power.
Thompson thrilled us in his commanding Act 5 aria with full orchestra, “Ye blustring brethren of the skies,” as did as his hearty, sonorous declamation as Cold Genius in Act 3, “Great Love, I know thee now.” Of the several inspired duets between these two singers, I would herald “Sound a parley, ye fair, and surrender” in Act 3 a gem of florid, Italianate lines gracefully interwoven, one of the composer’s most felicitous duets. Tenor Jason McStoots proved persuasive as the inebriated Comus in Act 5, leading with avid humor and his bright vocal line the other 5 tenors and basses of the chorus, who responded in virile, tipsy antiphony. His lilting aria in Act 2 “Bright nymphs of Britain” ended with the astute couplet:
Let not youth fly away without contenting; age will come time enough for your repenting.
Librettist John Dryden no doubt ruffled the moralists of his day.
Fleet natural trumpet players Kathryn Adduci and Melissa Rogers added sonic gold to the full orchestra ensemble, and Purcell used them liberally. In Act 5, he wrote an elaborate Trumpet Tune that put First Trumpet Adduci in clever dialogue with Concertmaster Adam LaMotte–so rewarding to compare to that “Purcell” Trumpet Tune in D Major played ubiquitously at weddings that is in truth a rather simple ditty by his younger colleague Jeremiah Clarke.
As usual, Valenzuela’s skilled continuo ensemble provided smartly turned out bass support throughout, led by Associate Music Director Michael Sponseller at the harpsichord. Ruben Valenzuela provided miraculous double duty both conducting and adding the second contiuno harpsichord.
As satisfying as this musical experience of King Arthur was, the dramatic rewards of its presentation lagged far behind. King Arthur, Merlin, and their Saxon counterparts were completely absent because none of the spoken parts of this semi-opera were performed. Although terse program notes and a well-attended pre-concert lecture provided a precis of the actual drama around which this music revolves, the work’s dramatic progression was missing in action. Imagine attending Carmen in concert without the presence of either Carmen or Don José.
So David Bennett of San Diego Opera or Peter Kozma of Opera NEO–how about presenting the entire semi-opera of King Arthur in the Balboa Theatre in an upcoming season?
This performance was presented by the Bach Collegium San Diego on Friday, May 3, 2019, at All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Point Loma and was repeated on May 4, 2019, at the Greek Orthodox Church of Sts. Helen and Constantine in Cardiff, CA.