BOSTON — Henry Purcell's "King Arthur" was a hit when it premiered in 1691. With a clever, witty, and blatantly patriotic libretto by the reigning Restoration poet, John Dryden, it was that distinctly English combination of theater, music, dance, and spectacle known as semi-opera.
It plays a bit like a Broadway musical, with spoken dialogue conveying the story and musical numbers used to amplify and comment on the action. In Purcell's hands, however, the transitions are seamlessly integrated and the music becomes the work's linchpin as well as its source of emotive power.
The Boston Early Music Festival's production last week, staged by Jack Edwards, was the first authentic performance of the work in North America, and only the second such performance in the world in more than 250 years (the festival was scooped by William Christie's Les Arts Florissants last month). For the average theater and opera buff, this authenticity was less thrilling from a scholarly point of view than as sheer entertainment - the air of quaintness lent it a delightful charm.
James Middleton's sets, though unimpressively painted, were based on late 17th-century models of outdoor settings and included typical special effects of the Baroque stage - a roiling sea, thunder and lightning, characters that descend from the sky. Despite rather frightful wigs, Middleton's costumes were attractive.
The acting ranged from the highly stylized (the luminous Carol Symes's blind Emmeline wandered the stage with her hands dramatically thrust forward) to the pedestrian (Michael Antonakes's Merlin was lackluster). Stephen Russell was a noble King Arthur, Jared Voss was an acrobatic Grimbald, and Fleming Brooks was a charismatic Oswald. Ken Pierce's lively dances lent an added dimension, though only Pierce and Susan Liu seemed comfortable in the style.
The real star of the opera is Purcell's expressive and inventive score. Orchestral interludes, which set the tone of the varied scenes, were performed by talent from around the world, led by festival co-director Peter Holman from the harpsichord and Elizabeth Blumenstock as concert mistress. The 11-member chorus featured remarkable solo turns.
Though "King Arthur" was ultimately replaced in popularity by Italian opera, it remains a compelling work - colorful, spirited, and well-paced. And it is a privilege to see it produced with such passion and care.