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Nothing half-hearted about Purcell 'semi opera' King Arthur
King Arthur is not your average opera. John Dryden provided the words - both spoken and sung - making up this pagan romp that brings together sprites, shepherds and sirens. Henry Purcell wrote the elaborate musical interludes originally performed by a chorus during breaks in the onstage action. Before its premiere in 1691, the composer did multiple rewrites over a number of years to suit the occupants of the revolving English throne during the Restoration. The Gabrieli Consort & Players' performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre did away with the spoken word altogether. They threw everything they had at the musical component of this operatic jigsaw puzzle, for which there is no original score and of which large parts are missing. The result was a glorious mishmash of Purcell music and Dryden text borrowed from a number of sources.
The music of Purcell has been central to the Gabrieli Consort since its conception. As its founder and artistic director Paul McCreesh says, 'We have been getting to know his music over a period of almost 40 years', roughly the life span of the composer. The musicians all play baroque instruments - entirely gut strings onstage at Saturday night's performance - and are 'serious about getting under the skins of playing some of these instruments'.
The authentic instruments - including baroque guitars ('the instrument of love') and violins with French-style bows - added to the musical colour. The trumpeter played his long ventless trumpet - his left hand on his hip - holding the instrument in his right hand. It was a heroic performance that sent a frisson of excitement through the audience every time he stood up to play.
Given its provenance, it's no surprise the opera's narrative is neither logical nor easy to follow. But King Arthur was far greater than the sum of its parts. The appearance of Cupid and Venus - a reference to sexual awakening - prompted some of the most erotic music Purcell ever wrote. The nine 'Players' - made up of six soloists and three ensemble members - put on a fine performance of operatic excellence combined with deft comic touches.
Melbourne audiences wanting an authentic taste of early baroque opera were in the safest of hands with the Gabrieli Consort & Players. The intimacy and excellent acoustics of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall did the rest.