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Dryden & Purcell 

King Arthur

or The British Worthy

A Dramatic Opera (1691)


Poznan Academy of Music

June 10th, 2015

International Baroque Opera Studio

September 2018

'Remember, all is illusion'

John Dryden and Henry Purcell's King Arthur presents its story of love, super-powers and nation-building in the grandiose format of 'Dramatick Opera', bringing together spoken drama, vocal and instrumental music and dance, in five Acts of thrilling spectacle, transformations, suspense, humour and noble adventure. It was first produced by the great Shakespearian actor, Thomas Betterton (highly praised by diarist Samuel Pepys), in response to the triumph of the first such Dramatic Opera, Dioclesian (music by Purcell and drama by Beaumont and Massinger.) King Arthur, with Betterton himself in the title-role, was the most successful Opera at the Queen's Theatre.

Unfortunately, academic musicology, perhaps too narrowly focussed on obvious predecessors of the mainstream operatic canon, has given this splendid form of music-theatre the rather dismissive label 'semi-opera', as if Restoration theatre and Purcell's dramatic music might somehow diminish each other. Surely we could more inspiringly and more appropriately term this amalgam of spoken and sung drama 'double-opera'!

But modern-day audiences, familiar with Broadway and Hollywood Musicals, can approach this baroque masterpiece on its own terms, as a beautiful and entertaining exploration of universal themes: national and cultural self-identity, the power of love, the rival calls of love and duty (aka work/life balance), defining and negotiating with the Other, political and theatrical Illusion and the search for Reality.

The drama depicts the struggle for the throne of England between Arthur's Britons and Oswald's Saxons, the action taking place on St George's Day. The most famous scene is a magical transformation to the North Pole, where Cupid attempts to warm the Cold Genius. After adventures in the Enchanted Forest, the Dramatic Opera ends with a Masque in honour of Britannia.

Dryden's libretto survives complete, but Purcell's music has had to be re-assembled from Orpheus Britannicus and other period sources. Nevertheless, the music for some songs and choruses is still missing, and these have been new-composed in Purcellian style for Andrew Lawrence-King's edition. In this edition, whilst the music is newly complete, the spoken text has been shortened.

Betterton as Hamlet


(as in ALK's reconstruction of Purcell's music

and adaptation of Dryden's drama)


King Arthur - spoken

Conon, Duke of Cornwall - spoken

Emmeline, daughter of Conon, Arthur's fiancée - spoken

Matilda, her attendant

Albanacht, Captain of the Guard - spoken

Merlin, the magician - spoken

Philidel, an Airy Spirit - speaking & Soprano

Warrior - Tenor

Shepherd - Tenor & Two Shepherdesses - Sopranos

Chorus of British Warriors

Chorus of Shepherds

Oswald, King of Kent - spoken

Osmund, a magician - spoken

Grimbald, an Earthy Spirit - speaking & Bass

Two Priests - Tenor, Bass

Two Valkyries - Soprano, Alto

Cold Genius - Bass

Cupid - Soprano

Two Sirens - Sopranos

Chorus of Saxons

Chorus of Cold People

Chorus in the Enchanted Wood

Masque of Britannia
Aeolus - Bass

Nereid - Soprano

Pan - Bass

Venus - Soprano

He - Bass & She - Soprano

Comus - Baritone

Honour - Soprano

Chorus of Britons

More about the International Baroque Opera Studio production (September 2018) and how to apply to participate here.



Garrick's 1770 edition of Dryden's 1691 libretto here.

Garrick as Richard III

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