Purcell King Arthur
Stefanie True, Caroline Weynants, Marcus Farnsworth, Zsuzsi Tóth, Sophie Junker, Olivier Berten, Sebastian Myrus; Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier
Alpha ALPHA 430 97:59 mins (2 discs)
This King Arthur is a giddy triumph for its artists. Blazing their way through the score, the performers set a new benchmark, delivering a production that’s equally gutsy and gorgeous. A spoken play when it was first written by John Dryden, King Arthur became a musical work in 1691 once Dryden asked Henry Purcell to set crucial scenes. In Dryden’s plot, King Arthur, helped by the wizard Merlin, defends his country and his beloved Emmeline against the incursions of the Saxon King Oswald. Besides huge variety, King Arthur contains Purcell’s most ingenious musical effects: churning cross-rhythms during battles, creepy chromaticism as Oswald tries to seduce Emmeline during the ‘Frost Scene’, aching sensuality when spirit nymphs tempt Arthur (‘How happy the Lover’), and a final masque in which Purcell somehow makes crude song fit with sumptuous airs and choruses.
Known for singing mostly sacred repertory, Vox Luminis first ventured into stage music in its 2015 concert version of King Arthur. By 2018, when finally recording this work, the ensemble knew the returns of risk-taking. Dance meters swing, and grand choruses are crisp and alluring. Amorous ensembles ooze passion, with guest soprano Sophie Junker irresistible as Cupid, while in comic airs tenor Robert Buckland and guest countertenor David Feldman smash decorum, whooping it up in falsetto. The ensemble’s principal soprano Zsuzsi Tóth takes up four roles – shepherdess, siren, nymph and Venus – subtly altering her timbres to harden or soften each of the characters. Director Lionel Meunier is the real star, with a soaring vision of Purcell’s music in a class of its own.