Soon after the brief heyday of the Purcellian dramatic opera, Roger North famously described the tug of war between the devotees of drama and of music. Now the music-lovers have won the day, and an audio recording like the latest version of King Arthur (Glossa gcd921608, rec2003), with Le Concert Spirituel directed by Hervé Niquet, is not very different from any Purcell anthology—a mixed programme of instrumental movements, solo songs, duets and choruses.
Commentators trying to explain dramatic opera to a lay audience often compare the genre to Singspiel or, more fashionably, to the Broadway musical. It won't do. A classic musical is a spoken play in which the principals burst into song when in the grip of emotions too powerful for speech. In a dramatic opera—by definition—the principals do not sing; instead, music has a quite different task. As Robert Shay says (in a valuable new essay in King Arthur in music, ed. R. Barber (Brewer, 2002)), with significant exceptions 'music should be heard by the listeners as music, not ... as speech guised in musical notes'. Which is also why the anthology treatment misrepresents a dramatic opera less than it does a Zauberflöte or even a Sunday in the park with George.
Niquet's recording is over a quarter of an hour shorter than its main rivals, and so fits on a single CD. This achievement entails a few cuts, mostly defensible, but Niquet also saves a lot of time by setting tempos which range from nippy to breathless, and which leave a strong sense that the participants are hoping to catch an early train home.
This predilection for excessive speed can render dense and cloudy a musical passage that should sound open and airy, such as the trio/chorus 'We brethren of air'. Some of these quick tempos seem to have been adopted without much thought, as in the Frost Scene, where the Cold People shiver not just twice as fast as the Cold Genius has done, but a good deal faster than that.
Niquet uses only six solo singers, fewer than most of his predecessors, but with frequent doubling they are enough for the job. The tenor Joseph Cornwell and the bass Peter Harvey both show how thoroughly they are steeped in Purcell style, though they are too often rushed along by the impatient Niquet. Cyril Auvity is billed as a 'countertenor'—ambiguous in today's marketing idiom—but he's a true haute-contre, with a lower register that can lend the requisite force to 'To Woden thanks we render' and sound thoroughly yeomanlike in the trio 'Forfolded flocks'. Though his English pronunciation needs polishing, Auvity has a real future as a Purcell singer.
But with the sopranos Véronique Gens and Hanna Bayodi, it isn't only their non-native accents that sometimes make their words hard for the listener to follow. In 'You say 'tis love', Gens turns measured declamatory song into something like freerecitative, less energetic and less expressive. Elsewhere, by singing too much like divas and not actresses, both sopranos fail to project Purcell's finely judged word-setting across the electronic footlights. Some of Broadway's great ladies—Mary Martin, say, or Barbara Cook—have not had huge voices but (without amplification, in theatres a lot bigger than Purcell's Dorset Garden) have known how to make every word tell, and to convince each member of their audience that the song was being delivered to them alone.
In the musical scenes which engage directly with the action of the play—the Sacrifice scene and Victory chorus in Act 1, the scene in Act 2 in which opposing brigades of spirits compete to guide and misguide Arthur's Britons, and the trumpet tune proclaiming the Britons' victory in Act 5—this recording does little to place the music on an aural stage. In 'Hither this way' neither vocal colours nor spatial separation differentiates Philidel's Spirits from Grimbald's. The 'Daughters of the aged stream' sound more matronly than nubile; when they offer to 'beat the waters' they sound more aggressive than seductive, and they end with grand-operatic vocalizing.