UK, 1985, baroque music / semi-opera

Henry Purcell / John Dryden / John Eliot Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque SoloistsKing Arthur: I was led to this opera at last through the film The Father, a magnificent stage adaptation that has pretty much nothing to do with this piece, except that it is heavily featured in the film as, perhaps, a parallel to the main character’s slow death of the mind. Perhaps. It intrigued me, because I am familiar with “The Cold Song”, an aria in this opera that Klaus Nomi made somewhat famous by recording it with all his dramatic vocal panache. What pushed me over was the fact that Gardiner conducted this recording. All right. If he took the time to conduct this opera, it must be worth a listen.

Purcell named this opera King Arthur, but it has very little of the Celtic King in it, focusing much more on pastoral pagan scenes peopled with pagan characters of all kinds, from nymphs to gods. The English poet John Dryden wrote the libretto, and it reflects his straightforward style. No need for interpretation here. One theme that is touched on more than once is the popular 17th-century one that believed love was the province of youth and that one should not waste time in doing what one ought, exemplified in the contemporary poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”.

After Arthur’s victory in Act V, the opera suddenly turns rather nationalistic. Venus falls in love with England. Like, with the island itself. Comus arrives, heralding the festivities of the harvest, and the English peasants—equal to any Continental gentry, mind you—dance and sing and put aside all that pagan silliness. Actually, Arthur kind of disappears, too. A strange ending, to be sure. Everybody clapped. Obama was there.

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