Semi-Opera in five acts by Henry Purcell Text by John Dryden
King Arthur is a central figure in legends about the origins of the island kingdom of Britain. The »British worthy« is also at the centre of this »dramatick opera« by John Dryden and Henry Purcell, the most original English composer of the baroque. In the opera, Arthur has to defend England against the Saxon invaders, who have descended upon the land like a force of nature. Arthur’s chance of loving bliss with his betrothed, the blind Emmeline, is under threat too, as the Saxon king Oswald also lays claim to her hand in marriage. In their conflict, both Arthur and Oswald are aided, led astray and rescued by wizards and spirits, but ultimately everything – Emmeline’s fate as well as England’s – comes down to a duel between the two adversaries.
»King Arthur« is a quintessentially British semi-opera. It creates a magical symbiosis of theatre, music and dance, and effortlessly combines sublime art of great seriousness with humour and spectacle. While the roles of the main characters are acted rather than sung, the opera also offers rich material for impressive musical tableaus performed by soloists and a chorus: countless fantastical events, pagan rituals, romantic moments, magical battles and a variety of natural and supernatural phenomena.
It’s young Arthur’s eighth birthday, and family and friends have arrived to celebrate. Arthur misses his father, who died as a soldier. The mother mourned his death for a long time, but now wants to move on. She suffers from the defiant disobedience of her son, who gives her the sense that she is guilty of the father’s death. As a birthday present, Arthur receives an old book of legends that tells of the early years of the British monarchy, including several puppets that represent figures from these mystical tales. The grandfather begins to tell of the legendary war of the British against the Saxons.
King Arthur and King Oswald face off against one another, supported by their wizards Merlin and Osmond. It’s about power and influence, but also the lovely, blind Emmeline, who is loved and desired by both, but whose heart belongs solely to the British King Arthur. Merlin calls for a fight against the heathen Saxons, and Arthur takes to battle with his allies Conon, Emmeline’s father, the monk Aurelius, and a powerful army. The war trumpets sound: just previously, Arthur had declared Emmeline his love. She and her nurse Mathilda wish him good fortune and victory. In the meantime, the Saxons have gathered forces to prepare for battle. They pray to Woden and the other gods for their support. The gnome Grimbald has already provided the sacrifices that are selected for ritual death. After their sacrifice, all Saxons are called to Woden’s Hall to then enter into battle fortified with strength. But the British win, and the defeated Saxons are forced to retreat.
On the radio, Little Arthur hears that the British Air Force has successfully attacked enemy installations. He playfully reenacts the scene. His grandfather tells him more about the British and the Saxons, and how things unfolded many, many years ago.
The sylph Philidel, who has changed sides from the Saxons to the British, mourns the victims of the battle. Merlin encourages him to help King Arthur and his entourage to find the right path through the scarcely navigable terrain, while Grimbald tries to mislead them. Arthur recognizes Grimbald, who pretends to be shepherd, as a messenger of hell and evil.
After the birthday party, the grandfather, accompanied by the governess and young Arthur, is brought back to the veteran’s home, where he has lived for some time. The grandfather would like to finish reading the chapter to his grandchild.
Even before King Arthur has returned from battle, Emmeline and Mathilda attend to the wounded warriors. They have learned of the glorious victory of the British and await the victorious leaders of the British forces. Emmeline remembers Arthur’s love for her, that is to remain constant.
The residents at the home celebrate Saint George’s Day, in commemoration of Britain’s patron saint. The mood gets increasingly jolly. Young Arthur is brought to bed. His mother reads him the rest of the story.
On their way home, Emmeline and Mathilda are surprised by two strangers: Oswald and Osmond. The Saxon king and his wizard kidnap the women. King Arthur confronts Oswald: if he frees Emmeline, he will surrender his crown to the defeated king. But Oswald refuses Arthur’s attempts at bribery: Only when he has won the love of Emmeline will he agree to a duel. Merlin strengthens Arthur’s courage. The blind Emmeline is to be given her sight back with a magic potion, and Arthur will not lose her to Oswald. Osmond, however, is playing at his own game. He gives Oswald a sleeping potion in order to take the reins of power in his own hands.
Little Arthur is sick in bed with a fever. His mother has summoned Doctor Oswald, with whom she is clearly having an affair. After the doctor leaves, the mother reads another chapter to the ill child from the old book, “The Enchanted Forest.”
Philidel has arrived at Oswald’s castle to free Emmeline. He there encounters Grimbald, who wants to teach the rebellious sylph a lesson. But Philidel tricks Grimbald and captures him using a magic spell.
The boy has now fallen asleep. The mother leaves the room.
Merlin goes to the enchanted forest to discover how the British can make their way safely through it. Philidel uses a magical potion to grant Emmeline her sight back. First she recognizes her own mirror image, then that of Mathilda, before seeing her beloved King Arthur for the first time. Philidel forbids them to touch one another, because otherwise the magic spell will dissipate.
Young Arthur, his mother, and a dream image of his father watch a puppet show together. The story about the two lovers has a strong impact an all.
Intermission Merlin warns King Arthur to leave. Emmeline, however, cannot leave, for she is still kept under a spell by Osmond’s magic. Together with Mathilda she remains a prisoner in the castle. King Oswald is now also a prisoner of Osmond, the wizard now wants them now all under his power. He begins a game of freezing spirits and people who are warmed by the power of love. But Emmeline is not impressed by this trick. Osmond now wants to take her by force, but is warned by the imprisoned Grimbald of a looming danger. Osmond trusts in the protection of the enchanted forest, but cannot prevent the escape of Emmeline and Mathilda.
In a dream, young Arthur’s father speaks to him. He takes him on a trip to the enchanted forest, where the strangest figures await him. Together they go off to free the mother from the clutches of the evil king and wizard: the heroic King Arthur wants to regain his Emmeline.
In the enchanted forest, King Arthur encounters sirens, nymphs, and other miraculous beings. They try to seduce him, but Conon and Aurelius intervene. They remind him of his love for Emmeline, causing the ghostly appearances to disappear. The two Britons have captured Grimbald, while Merlin has robbed the enchanted forest of its power. King Arthur is determined to challenge Oswald to a duel that will ultimately decide the question of victory or defeat.
Osmond laments the failure of all his plans and activities. Now he hopes that Oswald can stand up to King Arthur. But the Saxon king loses the duel, Arthur and the British have triumphed all down the line: England is entirely in their hands, and the old gods are finished. Now Arthur and Emmeline find their way back to one another. Oswald accepts his fate of being defeated, the shame lies solely with Osmond. Merlin celebrates the victory and looks forward to Britain’s wonderful future: the Anglo-Saxons and the British will soon grow together to become a model nation for the world.
With the grandfather and all the other relatives, young Arthur has been invited to his mother’s wedding. The groom is Doctor Oswald, who in his speech to the assembled crowd calls for peace, happiness, and love. The bloody war is now over, the future belongs to the living who need to shape it. The banquet is disrupted by a group of drunks. This is the course of the world, as the grandfather tells young Arthur, “what just seemed holy is forgotten tomorrow!” His son, Arthur’s father, should always remain his model. Once again, he appears to the young Arthur as a dream image. Just like him, he should become a true patriot and serve the nation. Young Arthur takes this to heart: he has learned his lesson.