King Arthur or, The British Worthy (Z. 628), is a semi-opera in five acts with music by Henry Purcell and a libretto by John Dryden. It was first performed at the Queen's Theatre, Dorset Garden, London, in late May or early June 1691.
The plot is based on the battles between King Arthur's Britons and the Saxons, rather than the legends of Camelot (although Merlin does make an appearance). It is a Restoration spectacular, including such supernatural characters as Cupid and Venus plus references to the Germanic gods of the Saxons, Woden, Thor, and Freya. The tale centres on Arthur's endeavours to recover his fiancée, the blind Cornish Princess Emmeline, who has been abducted by his arch-enemy, the Saxon King Oswald of Kent.
King Arthur is a "dramatick opera" or semi-opera: the principal characters do not sing, except if they are supernatural, pastoral or - in the case of Comus and the popular Your hay it is mow'd - drunk. Secondary characters sing to them, usually as diegetic entertainment, but in Act 4 and parts of Act 2, as supernatural beckonings. The singing in Act 1 is religious observance by the Saxons, ending with their heroic afterlife in Valhalla. The protagonists are actors, as a great deal of King Arthur consists of spoken text. This was normal practice in 17th century English opera. King Arthur contains some of Purcell's most lyrical music, much of it inspired by French dance rhythms and adventurous (for the day) harmonies.
Dryden probably wrote the original libretto for King Arthur in 1684 to mark the 25th anniversary of King Charles II's Restoration the following year. The original text of King Arthur no longer exists but it was to be in three acts with an allegorical prologue. For unknown reasons Dryden abandoned his intention to have the whole work set to music and developed the prologue into another opera, Albion and Albanius, a collaboration with the Spanish composer Louis Grabu. However, Charles II died in February 1685 and Albion and Albanius was first inauspiciously performed in June 1685 during the Monmouth Rebellion. It was a failure and Dryden shelved any plans he had for the rest of the King Arthur libretto. 
In the mean time, England entered a turbulent period in its history. After the Catholic James II took the throne, Dryden too converted to Catholicism. When the Protestant William III overthrew James in the Glorious Revolution in 1688, Dryden refused to renounce his faith and so lost his job as poet laureate to his rival Thomas Shadwell. Purcell's career had also suffered after the death of the music-loving Charles II. With their sources of royal patronage gone, both playwright and composer were looking to make money as freelance professionals and the London stage offered attractive opportunities.
In 1690, the theatre manager Thomas Betterton decided to risk putting on another operatic work, the first since the ill-fated Albion and Albanius. This was the semi-opera Dioclesian (1690), an adaptation of a play by Beaumont and Fletcher. Purcell's music for the production and the lavish staging made it a triumph and Betterton was eager for another such success. He persuaded Dryden to dust off and revise the libretto for King Arthur so Purcell could set it. The two had already collaborated on stage works (Dryden had written the prologue for Dioclesian and Purcell the incidental music for Dryden's comedy Amphitryon) and Dryden was effusive in his praise of Purcell's musical abilities.
In his preface to the printed edition, Dryden explained he had had to adapt the libretto to the changed political circumstances of 1691: "But not to offend the present Times, nor a Government which has hitherto protected me, I have been oblig'd so much to alter the first Design, and take away so many Beauties from the Writing, that it is now no more what it was formerly..." He also made alterations to suit Purcell's musical needs: "the Numbers of Poetry and Vocal Musick, are sometimes so contrary, that in many places I have been oblig'd to cramp my Verses, and make them rugged to the Reader, that they may be harmonious to the Hearer: Of which I have no Reason to repent me, because these sorts of Entertainments are principally design'd for the Ear and the Eye; and therefore in Reason my Art on this occasion, ought to be subservient to his."
The exact date of the premiere is unknown but the wordbook was advertised in The London Gazette from 4 June to 8 June 1691, suggesting a recent staging. Peter Holman believes it was performed in May. The production was not as spectacular as Dioclesian or the later The Fairy Queen but it proved the most financially successful for the theatre. Betterton himself took the role of King Arthur, despite being in his fifties. The contemporary writer Roger North was most impressed by Charlotte Butler's singing of Cupid, describing it as "beyond anything I ever heard upon the stage", partly ascribing her success to "the liberty she had of concealing her face , which she could not endure should be so contorted as is necessary to sound well, before her gallants, or at least her envious sex." 
King Arthur was revived at least twice during Purcell's lifetime and continued to be performed in the later 1690s. The first major revival in the eighteenth century was staged in 1736. This production left the work unaltered, but later revivals involved varying degrees of revision. They included a performance in Dublin in 1763; David Garrick and Thomas Arne's version in 1770; and John Kemble and Thomas Linley's transformation of King Arthur into a two-act after-piece entitled Arthur and Emmeline in 1784.
According to Curtis Price, the original 1684-5 version was probably an allegory of the Exclusion crisis, a major political dispute over who would succeed Charles II: his Catholic brother, James, Duke of York; or the Duke of Monmouth, his illegitimate - but Protestant - son. The faction backing James was nicknamed the "Tories"; that in favour of Monmouth, the "Whigs". The latter were led by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury. Dryden was a convinced Tory and had already satirised Shaftesbury and other Whigs in his poem Absalom and Achitophel (1681). In Price's reading, King Arthur represents Charles II, the Britons are the Tories, and the Saxons are the Whigs. Oswald is the Duke of Monmouth and Osmond/Grimbald is the Earl of Shaftesbury. Philidel is the Marquess of Halifax, a political moderate much admired by Dryden (he would dedicate the printed edition of King Arthur to Halifax). Emmeline personifies the "national conscience."
Dryden did not base his libretto on standard versions of Arthurian myth, although he was familiar with such books as Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. He did, however, use other works of literature as sources of inspiration. There are clear parallels between King Arthur and Shakespeare's The Tempest (which Dryden had revised in line with Restoration taste in collaboration with Sir William Davenant in 1667 and which had been turned into a semi-opera with music by Matthew Locke in 1674). Ellen A. Harris has described the links between the characters: Prospero and Merlin are both good magicians who use an "airy spirit" (Ariel in The Tempest, Philidel and King Arthur) to defeat a potential usurper (Alonzo/Oswald). The relationship between Arthur and Emmeline is like that between Ferdinand and Miranda. Like Miranda, Emmeline is an innocent who has "never seen a man" (quite literally true in the case of the blind Emmeline). Finally, there are obvious similarities between the "earthy spirits" Grimbald and Caliban, although there is no evil wizard corresponding to Osmond in The Tempest.
Dryden also used material he found in epic poetry: the idea of the "enchanted wood" is taken from Canto XVII of Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata; and Andrew Pinnock suggests the rivalry between Arthur and Oswald is like the conflict between Gondibert and Oswald in Sir William Davenant's unfinished poem Gondibert (1650).
In his preface, Dryden explained how he had conducted historical research into Germanic paganism in order to write the sacrifice scene in the first act: "When I wrote it, seven years ago, I employ'd some reading about it, to inform my self out of Beda, Bochartus, and other Authors, concerning the rites of the Heathen Saxons...". But Andrew Pinnock believes "practically all the ritual came from a far handier source (which unaccountably Dryden forgot to mention): Aylett Sammes's Britannia Antiqua Illustrata (1676)."
The "Frost Scene" in the third act has always attracted praise from critics. Edward J. Dent wrote that "The Frost Scene is one of Purcell's most famous achievements" with "its bold contrasts of style, and the masterly piling up of the music to a climax at the end of the chorus ''Tis love that has warmed us'." Thomas Gray, commenting on the 1736 production, described it as "excessive fine" and claimed that the Cold Genius' solo was "the finest song in the play." This aria ("What power art thou who from below") is accompanied by shivering strings, probably influenced by a scene from Act IV of Jean-Baptiste Lully's opera Isis (1677) but, as Peter Holman writes, Purcell's "daring chromatic harmonies transform the Cold Genius from the picturesque figure of Lully (or Dryden, for that matter) into a genuinely awe-inspiring character - the more so because Cupid's responses are set to such frothy and brilliant music." It has been suggested that the whole scene was inspired by the Frost fairs held on the Thames during the 1680s.
|Cast||Voice type||Premiere cast, May/June? 1691
|King Arthur||spoken role||Thomas Betterton|
|Oswald, King of Kent, a Saxon and a Heathen||spoken role||Joseph Williams|
|Conon, Duke of Cornwal, Tributary to King Arthur||spoken role||John Hodgson|
|Merlin, a famous Inchanter||spoken role||Edward Kynaston|
|Osmond, a Saxon Magician, and a Heathen||spoken role||Samuel Sandford|
|Aurelius, Friend to Arthur||spoken role||John Verbruggen ("Alexander")|
|Albanact, Captain of Arthur's Guards||spoken role||William Bowen|
|Guillamar, Friend to Oswald||spoken role||Joseph Harris|
|Emmeline, Daughter of Conon||spoken role||Anne Bracegirdle|
|Matilda, Her Attendant||spoken role||Mrs. Richardson|
|Philidel, an Airy Spirit/Cupid||soprano||Charlotte Butler|
|Grimbald, an Earthy Spirit||bass or baritone?||John Bowman|
|Saxon Priests||bass (or baritone) and tenor||one played by John Bowman|
|Two Valkyries||soprano and alto|
|Shepherds and Shepherdesses||tenor, two sopranos/SATB chorus|
|Aeolus||bass or baritone|
|Pan||bass or baritone|
|He (in Mr. Howe's song)||bass or baritone|
|She (in Mr. Howe's song)||soprano|
(Musical numbers given in bold)
The Britons prepare for the battle which will decide who will rule their land: the Christian Arthur or the heathen Saxon Oswald. It augurs well for them: it is Saint George's Day and the Britons have already defeated the Saxons in ten battles. Conon, Duke of Cornwall, explains the origins of the war. Oswald had sought his daughter, the blind Emmeline's, hand in marriage but she rejected him because she is in love with Arthur. Arthur enters reading a letter of support from his magician Merlin. He meets Emmeline and tries to explain to her what seeing means. A trumpet calls Arthur to battle.
Scene 2: "The scene represents a place of Heathen worship; The three Saxon Gods, Woden, Thor, and Freya placed on Pedestals. An Altar.
Oswald and his magician Osmond sacrifice horses and pray to the Saxon gods for victory in the coming battle. Osmond's servant, the spirit Grimbald, arrives and says he has persuaded six Saxons to offer themselves as a human sacrifice. He also admits he has lost control of the other spirit, Philidel, "a puleing Sprite" who "Sighs when he should plunge a Soul in Sulphur,/As with Compassion touched of foolish man." Philidel was supposed to have drawn up the vapours from the marsh and blown them in the face of the Christian soldiers but when he saw the crosses on their banners, he refused to carry out this task. Osmond says he will punish Philidel later.
The sacrifice scene:
Scene 3: "A battle supposed to be given behind the Scenes, with Drums, Trumpets, and military Shouts and Excursions."
The Britons sing a song of triumph as the Saxons flee the battlefield:
The tender-hearted Philidel pities those soldiers who have lost their lives in the battle. Merlin arrives in his chariot and orders Philidel to tell him who he is. Philidel explains he is a spirit of the air and one of the fallen angels, but he has repented. He deserts Osmond and joins Merlin. Philidel tells Merlin that Grimbald is planning to deceive the victorious Britons by leading them to drown in rivers or fall off cliffs. Merlin leaves Philidel his band of spirits to save the Britons from this trap. Grimbald arrives disguised as a shepherd guiding Arthur and his men. Philidel and his spirits and Grimald and his spirits compete to win Arthur's trust:
Grimbald admits defeat, vows revenge on Philidel and vanishes.
Scene 2: A pavilion
Emmeline and her maid Matilda await news of the battle. To pass the time, a "Crew of Kentish Lads and Lasses" entertain them with songs and dances:
Oswald and his comrade Guillamar stray from the battlefield, chance upon the pavilion and kidnap Emmeline and Matilda.
A group of Britons continue the battle.
Arthur and his men attack Oswald's castle but Osmond's magic defeats them. Osmond has conjured a "Magick Wood" which bars access to the castle. Merlin promises to help Arthur reach Emmeline and restore her sight with potion in a vial.
Scene 2: A deep wood
Grimbald catches Philidel as he scouts the enchanted wood for Merlin. Philidel pretends to submit but secretly casts a spell on Grimbald which renders him powerless to move. Merlin asks Philidel to guide Arthur through the wood and gives him the vial, which the spirit uses to rid Emmeline of her blindness. Emmeline is amazed at the new world before her eyes. Merlin's spells also allow Arthur and Emmeline to meet for a brief moment, but Emmeline will not be free until the enchanted wood is destroyed. Osmond enters, intent on seducing Emmeline for himself, having drugged his master Oswald.
The masque fails to persuade Emmeline and Osmond resorts to force but the captive Grimbald's shouts interrupt him. Osmond goes to free him, promising Emmeline he will be back.
The freed Grimbald warns Osmond that Arthur is approaching the enchanted wood, where Merlin has undone his spells. Osmond decides to replace the threatening spells with seductive ones.
Scene 2: Scene of the Wood continues
Merlin leaves Arthur at the entrance to the wood with the spirit Philidel as his guide. Philidel has a wand which will banish all magical deception. Arthur hears seductive music from two Sirens bathing in a stream (29. "Two Daughters of this Aged Stream are we"). Though tempted, Arthur realises it is an illusion and presses on. Next, "Nymphs and Sylvans" emerge from the trees singing and dancing (30. Passacaglia: "How happy the lover"). Again, Arthur rejects them and begins the task of destroying the wood. When he chops a tree with his sword, blood pours out of it and the voice of Emmeline cries out in pain. It convinces Arthur that it is Emmeline, who has been turned into a tree by Osmond, and Arthur is just about to embrace the tree when Philidel reveals it is really a trick by Grimbald. Philidel captures Grimbald and Arthur cuts down the tree, dispelling the enchantment from the wood and freeing the way to Oswald's castle. Philidel drags off Grimbald in chains.
Now his magic has been destroyed, Osmond is terrified of the approaching Arthur. He decides he must persuade Oswald to fight for him.
Arthur and the Britons are preparing to storm the castle when Oswald comes out and challenges his rival to single combat for the hand of Emmeline and the crown. They fight and Arthur disarms Oswald. Arthur spares his life but tells Oswald he and his Saxons must return to Germany because the Britons "brook no Foreign Power/ To Lord it in a Land, Sacred to Freedom." Osmond is cast into a dungeon with Grimbald. Arthur is reunited with Emmeline and the work ends with a celebratory masque.
The final masque: Merlin conjures a vision of the ocean around Britain. The Four Winds create a storm which is calmed by Aeolus:
allowing Britannia to rise from the waves on an island with fishermen at her feet.