In between engagements in Vienna and Moscow, the Gabrieli Consort and Players have travelled to the other side of the world bringing their King Arthur to enthusiastic audiences in Adelaide and Melbourne. King Arthur didn’t come, nor did Osmond, Emmeline, Merlin or any of the other characters with spoken roles. Instead were a cast of six principals and three ensemble members who shared the vocal roles, and seventeen exceptional musicians, under the brilliant guidance of Paul McCreesh. Somehow State Opera of South Australia was able to ensure they included Adelaide.

Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort © Andy Staples
Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort
© Andy Staples

We heard a new performing edition of King Arthur arranged by Christopher Suckling and Paul McCreesh. In the programme, Suckling, one of the bass violins in the ensemble, described it as “an amalgam of scholarly research, performance experience and musical instinct that facilitates [their] interpretation of Purcell’s glorious music”. It was recorded in London last month, I hope on DVD to capture the rich expression and clever antics of the cast. They add delightful sparkle, colour and wit to what is basically a concert performance.

All in black, the musicians appeared through the curtained stage and with expressive, encouraging sweeps of the conductor’s arms, the strings standing in a circle, heads bobbing, their music flowed, their sounds blending excitingly. As the soloists and supernumaries claimed their seats Ashley Riches launched into the stirring “Woden, first to thee”, picked up by the chorus, furthered by the tenors, thrilling with beautifully intricate Purcellian harmonies.

Jean-Francois Madeuf, playing one handed on a trumpet without keys, not an easy beast to control, gave us a rousing British Triumphing song, allowing tenor Marcus Farnsworth to take us into his confidence as he persuasively urged “Come if you dare”. Philidel (Anna Dennis, with rich green dress, the only performer not wearing black) laid down the challenge “Hither, this way”, as she and the chorus suggested one way then another, creating a lively confusion. Which way, what way, who knows, who cares, have fun!

One of the highlights of the night was James Gilchrist, coat over his shoulder, stepping down from the stage, displaying his pink shirt and inviting the audience into his confidence, singing so lyrically ”How blessed are shepherds”, finally laying back on the stage contented. We were captivated. Soprano shepherdesses Anna Dennis and Mhairi Lawson blended marvellously, one either side of him, to suggested wedding contracts. Everyone joined in a lively refrain, announcing: “The cares of wedlock are cares of pleasure”, although with a sense of urgency in their voices.

As Mhairi Lawson, a convincing Cupid, awoke the Cold Genius (Ashley Riches), everything seemed cold. He conveyed a struggle with the cold as he sang. The other singers wrapped their arms around themselves as if freezing. The lady next to me put a rug over her lap. It felt like the air-conditioning had been turned up. So simply, a marvellous illusion had been created. Perhaps Merlin was behind the stage after all!

Riches sang brilliantly, his commandingly sonorous voice very much in control. Lawson (“'Tis I that have warm'd ye”) set about unfreezing the cast, including conductor McCreesh. The final duet of this act was a beautifully engaging parley between Riches and Lawson, both blending, matching so engagingly, leading everyone to join in a rousing “'Tis Love that has warm'd us”. It was an uplifting way to end. Even the conductor joined in.

After interval Lawson had changed into an icy blue dress and joined with Dennis, becoming sirens attempting to lead Arthur to bathe with them. They were impressively persistent. The response was an inspiring Passacaglia, beautifully led by Hugo Hymas, with his outstanding lyrical tenor voice infused with happiness, reminded us “How happy the lover”. Marcus Farnsworth and Mhaira Lawson got a little philosophical and as they slowly approached each other, tentatively touched and finally embraced, all the while singing of faithful constant love. 

Even more moving was the focus in the final act on Britannia. It was like a Saturday night in the local boozer as a merry trio, with hands clasped, reminded us that “Fair Britain all the world outvies”. Everyone, including the conductor joined in to pour drunken praises on the uniqueness of Old England. Anna Dennis, now as Venus, raised the bar in her beautiful reminder of Britannia as “Fairest isle, all isles excelling”, extolling the specialness of the land. There was a stately, majestic call on the trumpet, leading Marcus Farnsworth to stand and with politician’s hand gestures and earnest expressions, eagerly joined by the crowd, to invoke the blessings of St George.

****1