Seraphic Fire wraps season with a delightful new take on Purcell’s “King Arthur”

By Lawrence Budmen

Seraphic Fire is concluding a season of stellar programming with a worthy revival of Henry Purcell’s semi-opera King Arthur, presented Friday at the New World Center in Miami Beach.

Purcell’s 1691 gem has languished in obscurity due to its long-winded, inscrutable libretto by English poet John Dryden. Seraphic Fire artistic director Patrick Dupre Quigley commissioned a revisionist narrative from award-winning playwright Laura Schellhardt.

Schellhardt has replaced Dryden’s play with a funny, informal plot summary delivered by the Reluctant Host, a protagonist of the playwright’s creation. Since Dryden’s original play is devoid of such Arthurian icons as the Knights of the Round Table, Excalibur and Sir Lancelot, Schellhardt’s witty compendium of wars between English and Saxon forces is all the more imaginative and entertaining. Schellhardt delivered her modernist version with appealing twenty 21st-century irony and irreverence.

The retooled synopsis throws Purcell’s remarkable score into bold relief. Filled with infectious melodies and often audacious choral and orchestral invention, King Arthur finds the English Baroque master at the top of his game. The overture, with its stately introduction and lithe allegro adorned by intricate counterpoint, is easily the equal of any of Handel’s concerto grossi. In the Frost Scene, the string figurations match Vivaldi’s depiction of winter in the Four Seasons. (The wavering, icy vocal line of the Cold Genius would provide satirical fodder for Gilbert and Sullivan two centuries later.) 

A duet for two sirens brings daring harmonies, far advanced for the composer’s time and still surprising today. In the concluding act’s festive celebration of English victory, a drinking song for male voices seems to come from a ballad opera, as if John Gay had stepped into Purcell’s historical pageant. The work comes to a sublimely beautiful climax with Fairest Isle, one of the composer’s most famous soprano arias. Since the conclusion of the original score is lost, Quigley appended the vivacious chorus To the hills and the vales from Dido and Aeneas.

Kudos to Patrick Quigley for presenting this delightful work in an idiomatic, nearly flawless performance. His unerring sense of drama and contrast projected the score in one long arc, setting the perfect tempo for each set piece while maintaining tension and momentum. Quigley drew gorgeously layered textures from his fifteen-voice choir and alert, stylish playing from the Firebird Chamber Orchestra. Scholarly but never dogmatic, Quigley captured the humanity of Purcell’s score. The choir and instrumental ensemble resounded with greater clarity, depth and resonance in the vibrant New World Center space than in their usual church venues or forays to Miami’s Arsht Center.

The Seraphic Fire members superbly rendered the numerous solo vocal parts. One of this splendid choir’s greatest attributes is the profusion of first-rate solo talent within its ranks. Countertenor Reginald Mobley brought laser-like agility to the darting coloratura of the Priestess. As the evil Grimbald, Paul Tipton’s firm baritone was appropriately masked in tones of oily malevolence. Rebecca Duren’s sweet timbre and crisp articulation adorned Phillidel’s enchanting aria. Stefan Reed’s patrician lyric tenor matched the near-Mozartean aristocratic grace of the Shepherd’s aria.

In the Snow Scene, Kathryn Mueller exuded charm with dizzying flights of coloratura as Cupid while James Bass’ rotund bass served the Cold Genius’ quivering Baroque roulades. With his deep, firm baritone Charles Wesley Evans spun arching cantabile lines in Aelos’ triumphant aria and in duet with Gitanjali Mathur’s lustrous soprano. The pure, silvery beauty of Tess Wakim’s  Fairest Isle (sans vibrato) was a final vocal piece de resistance. Props to the gifted singers and musicians for a vital realization of this neglected masterpiece.

Seraphic Fire repeats King Arthur 7:30 p.m. Saturday at New World Center in Miami Beach and 4 p.m. Sunday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Ft. Lauderdale. 305-285-9060;

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Seraphic Fire wraps season with a delightful new take on Purcell’s “King Arthur””

  1. Posted May 15, 2011 at 12:00 pm by Kristian Toimil

    I’m sorry, but the narration was not funny. Offensive, but not funny. Just imagine watching “Die Walküre” and inbetween scenes someone comes out and starts saying, “So Siegmund & Sieglinde are brother and sister and now in love? Ick!” It removes the viewers’ attention from the opera and it takes away from the performance at hand. It was worse, far worse, than applause between a Beethoven Symphony. I earnestly hope that SF does not attempt this kind of performance again, or they will lose a once devoted follower.

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Sat May 14, 2011
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