Staging the Elements: Purcell’s King Arthur

In the spring of 1691, Purcell’s “dramatic opera” King Arthur or the British Worthy was performed at the Dorset Garden Theatre for the first time. It met with considerable success. In Act 3, at the center of this hybrid and baroque piece, is the masque presented by Osmond to Emmeline, which stages the Cold Genius being awakened by Cupid. This air is one of Purcell’s most famous pieces: the lyrics, the way they are sung, and the instrumental part all convey a powerful impression of frost. Besides, the opera scenes comment on the dramatic ones, adding yet another layer to the complex representation of rough weather.

As the hybrid genre of the semi-opera is typical of the English stage, I would like to analyze how the intersection of visual, musical and verbal arrangements works in this masque and ties in to the rest of the semi-opera. In addition to the Cold Genius’s aria, I would also like to look into other instances that, in Purcell’s work, deal with the harsh weather, including a storm mentioned towards the denouement. It is worth noting here that Dorset Garden Theatre, built in 1671, was the best equipped theater in London at the time, so it had the necessary machinery and design to hold the more spectacular plays. So I will finally examine more technical aspects related to the staging of King Arthur and pay particular attention to the scenes evoking extreme meteorological phenomena.

Alix Desnain (Université Clermont Auvergne)


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