I have to hold my hand up. In spite of thinking myself as being
one of the world’s biggest enthusiasts of British music, I had
my doubts about this opera when I heard that it was due to be
released. I could not possibly imagine the claim that somehow
this two and three quarter hour, three-act marathon by Sir George
Alexander Macfarren could be anything other than a mediocre,
third rate production from one of the ‘leading lights’ from
the notorious ‘Land without Music’. Especially extravagant were
claims that Robin Hood is ‘a work of musical genius superior
to any works of Verdi or Donizetti, [and] doubtless the chef
d’oeuvre of the English school’. Hardly likely, I thought. Perhaps,
just perhaps, I was able to concede that this opera may have
been ‘very full of good fun and on the way to Sullivan’. How
utterly wrong-headed can I have been?
The critic of English opera can work in at least two directions.
He can begin with John Blow’s masque Venus and Adonis
followed by Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, The Fairy Queen
and King Arthur and work down the years by considering
the works of Thomas Arne, such as Thomas and Sally. He
can then explore the influence of Handel whose operas were unbelievably
popular in the middle of the eighteenth century although, it
must be recalled that he was a German who had visited Italy!
My edition of the Harvard Dictionary of Music quite boldly states
that ‘the writing of serious operas by English composers of
the first rank practically ceased until the 20th
century.’ This prejudice tends to ignore works such as Michael
Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl, W.V. Wallace’s Maritana
and Julius Benedict’s The Lily of Killarney. These once
extremely popular works were regarded as operas and not as operetta,
in spite of their being ‘not too heavy’ in their theme and content.
At the end of this period comes Sullivan – both with and without
William Schwenck Gilbert.
Other critics will work backwards. Perhaps starting with Harrison
Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy they regress through the
great operas by Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
There are sometimes a few digressions to Tippett, Berkeley and
Maconchy. However at the end of the day, they too end up with
Sullivan before promptly dismissing him. They then investigate
the purer waters of Purcell.
Somewhere in the middle of all this historical exploration is
Sir George Alexander Macfarren who wrote a number of operas
including Allan of Aberfeldy, King Charles II,
She Stoops to Conquer, Helvellyn and Robin
Hood. David Chandler has defined the opera’s status as follows:
‘Robin Hood certainly anticipates Ivanhoe and
some later attempts at a truly English style of opera, but it
also marks the end of an era. It belongs to the last and greatest
period of the Victorian English romantic opera, along with Loder’s
Raymond and Agnes (1855), Wallace’s exactly contemporaneous
Lurline (1860), the same composer’s The Amber Witch
(1861), and Benedict’s The Lily of Killarney (1862).
It is totally distinct from these contemporary works however,
and an impressive monument to Macfarren’s enduring and largely
successful efforts to fashion a truly English species of musical
theatre, at once looking back and looking forwards.’
It is a bold endeavour indeed to embark on reviving an opera
that many people will regard as being well past its sell by
date. To consider making a recording is heroic. It is almost
certain this will be the one and only version produced in our
lifetimes. It has to be good: it has to sell the music and create
something well beyond the experience of visiting a ‘museum’.
There was considerable work involved in restoring the performing
edition: the parts had gone missing and the full score was written
in a ‘spidery hand’. This mammoth task was undertaken by Dr.
Valerie Langfield. It is not just a case of copying out the
bars into Sibelius and pressing the ‘print score and parts’
button. There was a heap of technical issues, such as the fact
the Macfarren used a three-stringed double bass and horns with
The CD liner-notes provide a synopsis of the opera and the full
is available on the Naxos website. However it will do no harm
to give a thumbnail sketch of the story. The libretto was written
by John Oxenford (1812–1877) who made use of a number of motifs
from the corpus of Robin Hood stories as well as Sir Walter
The first act sees Robin Hood disguised as Locksley, who is
a suitor of Marian, the Sheriff of Nottingham’s daughter. The
second act portrays the robbery of the Abbot or as presented
here the ‘sompnour’ and this is followed by the archery contest
which Robin/Locksley wins and receives the hand of Marian. However
the sompnour recognizes Robin who is cast into prison. The third
act has Marian fleeing to the forest to summon Robin Hood’s
followers who naturally come to the rescue. All ends happily
with the death warrant received from King John actually being
a pardon. Robin and Marion are reunited and there is ‘general
rejoicing.’ Naturally there are many sub-plots and events worked
into the story such as the ‘feasting in the forest’ and the
‘town fair’ scenes.
The score is full of attractive and often beautiful music that
will leave the doubter speechless. It may not be Verdi or Donizetti
- was all Verdi great? - but there is a quality of musical endeavour
here that must surely strike the listener as being well beyond
the perceived ‘dry as dust’ or overly sentimental qualities
that have attached themselves to this period of British music.
For example listen to Robin’s beautiful aria ‘My own, my guiding
star’ from Act Two (CD2 Track 3) or to Marian’s gorgeous offering
of True Love in Act 1 (CD1 Track 6). This is operatic music
at its best, not over the top, but moving and attractive. The
patriotic ballad ‘Englishmen by birth are free’ (CD1 Track 9)
must be one of the highlights of the opera: one can imagine
it going down exceptionally well at the height of the Victorian
era. It is certainly as good as any of Sullivan’s arias such
as Lord Mountararat’s ‘When Britain really ruled the waves’.
One of the hits at the time of the first performance was Robin
and the Greenwood men’s ‘The Grasping Normans’ (CD1 Track 14).
It is difficult to say that any part of the opera is weak or
falls below the standards set by these ‘hits’.
The performers in this groundbreaking recording are the Victorian
Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Their mission is to record lost
or forgotten operatic works by British composers. They are joined
by the John Powell Singers. The soloists are professional and
the chorus and orchestra are drawn from a variety of local groups
and societies. The quality of the singing from the principals
and chorus is excellent. All the players are kept in order by
Ronald Corp, who has drawn an outstanding performance from all
The liner-notes are first-rate, the sound quality superb and
the cover picture of ‘The Edge of Sherwood Forest’ is totally
appropriate. Altogether a great production.
Let us hope that one day this work will be seen in all its glory
on the stage: it is just the sort of opera that would go down
a treat at the Buxton Festival. Meanwhile, the story of Robin
Hood is so well known that even the least imaginative of listeners
can provide the mental backcloth, scenery and props to this
So I was wrong. Robin Hood has seriously impressed me.
As preparation for this review I have listened to it two or
three times as well as picking out the purple passages. The
more I hear this music the more it appears competent, attractive,
often beautiful, sometimes moving and always interesting. And
I am not an opera buff! In fact, I am coming to love it as much
as I love G&S.
This is a CD that all opera fans ought to have. Some
people will ignore it simply because it was written by an Englishman
during Queen Victoria’s reign. They would be utterly misguided
to do so. This is a great work; possibly the composer’s masterpiece
and is a light opera (not operetta) that can hold its best up
against anything offered by the Italians and the French and
the Germans from the same period.
see also review by Ian