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Rare Dryden-Purcell Masque Coming


John Dryden by Godfrey Kneller

Boston has a thriving opera scene, but performances of masques and English Baroque semi-operas are a rare treat. On Saturday Nov. 19th, the Henry Purcell Society of Boston, Boston Poet’s Theater, and the Arcadia Players team up for John Dryden’s 1691 play King Arthur with Henry Purcell’s original dramatic music performed on period instruments at Cathedral Church of Saint Paul, Boston.

The masque was one of the hottest kinds of courtly entertainment in Baroque England. Dedicated to the Marquess of Halifax, King Arthur premiered at the Queen’s Theater in the presence of William and Mary. English masques combined orchestral music, singing, dancing, and spectacle. The elaborate scenic designs were often credited to leading architects, interpreting legends and folklore through a politically complementary lens. While the masque was at its height in the seventeenth century, Purcell, William Boyce, and Thomas Arne (one of Handel’s rivals) continued to compose masques for patriotic occasions.

This production will combine Dryden’s five acts of spoken poetry with Purcell’s songs, duets, choruses, and instrumental music, focusing on Arthur’s legacy as a defender of England (from invading Saxons) and a romantic hero. The English writer Charles Burney called one of Purcell’s contributions “the best piece of recitative in our language” (‘You twice ten hundred deities’). The full score and editorial notes for Purcell’s music may be found here.

Since the demands on Restoration actors and singers required diverse skills in the late 17th century, most productions of this work employ two groups of actors (professional actors and musicians, both male and female).  Sometimes, royalty played non-singing roles (like Henry VIII and Charles I of England), and some danced in productions (including Queen Anne of Denmark and Louis XIV of France).

Detail from Thames Frost Fair  by Thomas Wyke
Detail from Thames Frost Fair by Thomas Wyke

This show will instead emphasize the rhythmic nuances of Dryden’s text by employing classically-trained singers in some of the speaking roles. Stage director Bob Scanlan describes the Restoration-era poetry as “very high Dryden,” similar to the highly-poetic French dramatic writing of the day, which will “be read musically.” Sumner Thompson (playing the character of Grimbald) and Krista River (playing Philamel) will take on these dual roles, connecting the worlds of fantasy and reality. Soprano Sarah Yanovitch will appear in the dual roles of Cupid and Venus, and a highlight of the musical portion will surely include local favorite David Kravitz performing the difficult role of the Frost Genius, from the famous “Frost Scene.” This virtuoso aria is highly chromatic and may have been inspired by the Frost fairs held on the River Thames during the 1680s.

This is not the traditional Arthur (and Merlin) of southern England, but rather a combination of characters in Greek myth, English legend, Shakespeare’s Tempest, and Germanic folklore. England was politically unstable at the time, with the question of Charles II’s successor a topic of conversation and anxiety, so the questions asked by Dryden and Purcell were both contemporary and timeless: will the hero save his beautiful, blind lover from villainous hands? Can a country’s integrity be preserved in spite of sudden, surprising shifts of power? And will Cupid be able to wake the Cold Genius and soothe the world through the power of love?

See related review here.

KING ARTHUR, a semi-opera by Henry Purcell

play by Poet Laureate, John Dryden

A SEMI-STAGED presentation, performed on period instruments with special guests concert mistress Aisslinn Nosky, and other members of the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra

Saturday, November 19, 2016 at 7:30
Cathedral Church of Saint Paul
138 Tremont Street, Boston, MA

Boston Tickets HERE:

$65, $45 and $25

**CONCERT VERSION ON NOVEMBER 20, 2016 4pm at Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst, MA, produced by Ian Watson and the Arcadia Players (tickets HERE)

Sarah Yanovitch, Cupid and Venus
David Kravitz, as the Cold Genius
Benjamin Evett, King Arthur
Esme Allen as his lover, Emmeline

Staged by Bob Scanlan, musical direction by Ian Watson, co-produced/ sponsored by the Henry Purcell Society of Boston

With special appearances by Nicole Estima, Kathryn McKellar, Jessica Petrus, Sonja Tengblad, Wee Kiat Chia, Katherine Growdon,
**Krista River, Charles Blandy, Eric Christopher Perry, Stefan Reed, Jacob Cooper, David Tinervia, **Sumner Thompson, and Bradford Gleim

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