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Adam DE LA HALLE (13th century)
Le jeu de Robin et de Marion (circa 1280) [74.26]
(English translation by Rosemary Pitts and Anthony Pitts)
Adam il Bochus/Pilgrim/Narrator - John Crook (voices)
Aubert li Chevaliers/Sir Albert - Alexander Hicker (tenor)
Baudons/Baldwin - Richard Eteson (tenor, coconuts)
Gautiers li Testus/Walter the Mule - Francis Brett (bass)
Huars/Howard - Joanna Forbes (soprano)
Marion - Kathryn Oswald (alto)
Peronelle - Rebecca Hickey (soprano)
Robin - Alexander L’Estrange (counter-tenor, tambourine)
Rogaus/Roger - Antony Pitts (Bagpipe Drone, Billingsgate Trumpet, Cowhorns, Portative Organ, Tambourine)
Tonus Peregrinus: Mary Remnant (Bells, Drum, Fiddle, Gittern/Citole, Harp, Pipe and Tabor, Rebec, Shawm, Symphony, Whitecastle Pipe)/Antony Pitts and Joanna Forbes
rec. 22-23 September, 3 October 2003, Sedgwick Park, West Sussex; 28 September 2004, Finchcocks, Goudhurst, Kent
NAXOS 8.557337 [74.26]

Adam de la Halle was a 13th century trouvère who combined the skills of poet and composer. He wrote numerous chansons, motets and rondeaux. But he also wrote plays and his play Le jeu de Robin et de Marion combines spoken word and music. It is the first surviving secular drama to mix in music to create a form which we could describe as opera but is in fact closer to the musical.
The subject matter mixes two standard plots. In the first half we get an encounter between a knight and a shepherdess (Marion) in which the knight is bested by the shepherdess. Then when Marion’s lover Robin appears the play describes, in great detail, the antics and horseplay of the peasants, including a number of party-games and food-related jokes.
The result is rather difficult to place nowadays, though its survival in numerous different versions is testimony to its popularity. The original may have simply been read and sung by the trouvère or it could have been acted in the lord’s presence. This new recording by Tonus Peregrinus attempts to combine these two possibilities.
John Crook reads the play, clear and articulate medieval French, essaying different voices for the different characters and projecting the plot well. If this had been the main basis for the performance, then I would have been content.
But Tonus Peregrinus have attempted to bring the piece into the 21st century by also performing it in their own jokey, contemporary translation. The performers are the singers themselves. In order to clarify the performance, John Crook is stage-right and the English performers stage-left. The result is, technically, surprisingly effective and makes the performance relatively easy to follow. You can also alter the balance so that one or other performance (French reading or English play) dominates.
But the performance of the English play leaves a lot to be desired. Anthony and Rosemary Pitts’ determinedly contemporary translation is something that will date easily. Well before the end of the play I was weary of the jokey manner and inevitable punning. Perhaps something like this is necessary, because the original play is full of this sort of horse-play, which would have been embellished in performance. The rather stilted dramatic performance from the actor/singers does the English version no favours; it sounds as if we are eavesdropping on a student romp, something that you’d only want to do once.
So far, I have not said much about the musical performance. As might be expected from this group, this is impeccable. Going on very little, just notations of the melody line, they have created some little musical gems. But there is far more text than music and I found myself longing for the next musical item. The music’s range is not very great but what there is, is charming and exquisitely performed. In fact, one of the troubles is that the musical performances do not seem to belong to the same piece as the English drama being played out. They match far better the tone of John Crook’s spoken narration.
The distinguished academic and performer Mary Remnant provides the majority of the supremely accomplished musical accompaniment. All the performers are hard working and multi-task with Anthony Pitts co-authoring the translation, editing and arranging the music, co-directing the performance (with singer Joanna Forbes) and playing a number of medieval instruments. Perhaps this very multi-tasking is the cause of the performance’s failure; if an outside director had been brought in they might have been able to give a sense of drama and shape. As it is, there is too much the feeling of talent put to waste.
This is very much a mixed bag, but certainly a worthwhile attempt. Adam de la Halle’s piece is important, even if it is difficult to bring off. The disc is still worth exploring, mainly for John Crook’s spoken narration and the musical performances. So if you do buy it, make sure you alter the balance before you start and tune out the spoken English performance.

Robert Hugill



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