Despite his Scottish sounding name, George Alexander Macfarren
was English, born in London. He studied at the Royal Academy
of Music, became a Professor of Harmony and Composition there
and, in 1875, by then totally blind, rose to become the Academy’s
Principal. His compositional output comprised orchestral music,
oratorios, cantatas and songs.
Robin Hood was first produced in 1860 at a time when
Elgar was but three years old and when the English Musical Renaissance
was in bud rather than in flower. Described as a ‘Romantic English
Opera in three acts’, Robin Hood has more in common with
operetta in its lightness of approach and intermittent spoken
dialogue. It was popular in its day and was esteemed by Edward
Dent who thought it ‘very full of good fun and on the way to
Sullivan ...’ Indeed it does anticipate Sullivan. One can also
detect influences of Mendelssohn and Schumann and even hints
of Verdi in the Act III, Second Scene Song “Sons of the Greenwood.”
It was revived regularly to the end of the 19th century
when it was eclipsed, I imagine, by the works of Gilbert and
Sullivan and Edward German. It then languished and it has been
left to the hard and dedicated work of Valerie Langfield (Roger
Quilter’s biographer) to painstakingly rebuild its score.
This link takes you to her article detailing that task.
It has to be said that, to modern ears, this work can often
sound quaint. One contemporary critic went on record to comment
that Robin Hood was “a work of musical genius superior
to any works of Verdi or Donizetti...” Ahem!
The story line follows the familiar Robin Hood legends but with
Maid Marian cast as the daughter of the Sheriff of Nottingham
- who is shown here to be not such a bad fellow in the end.
Here the Sheriff pardons Robin and allows him to marry his daughter
at the final curtain – but only when King Richard returns from
the Crusades to sort out his evil brother, John. The villain
is Sompnour, who collects taxes from the downtrodden peasants.
All praises to Ronald Corp’s choir and orchestra for their verve
and enthusiasm. The Overture promises well; it’s atmospheric,
exciting and romantic with its horn-calls and woodland imagery.
The Act II Entr’acte sporting a brass chorale is equally pleasing.
The choral writing, for the most part, impresses: the Act II
Part Song ‘The wood, the wood’ and ‘A good fat deer’ that immediately
follows, both for Robin’s men, are lusty, evocative and witty.
Just as striking is the Act III, Scene II choral part-song,
‘Now the sun has mounted’ which anticipates Sullivan and especially
his ‘The Long Day Closes’ published in 1868, some eight years
after Robin Hood.
Tenor Nicky Spence is stalwart and dashing; his nobly patriotic
Act I ballad ‘Englishmen by Birth’ rings out proudly. He romances
Marian tenderly and his duets with Marian such as their ‘Good
Night, Love’ are lovingly affecting. Lyric soprano Kay Jordan
has a nicely young-girlish, bright, full timbre with a powerfully
projected coloratura. It has to be said though that the voice
tends, at times, to be a little uncomfortable in the top extremities.
Alas she is not served with the best of the libretto – some
lines are quite banal – take for example her Act I aria beginning
with the words, “Hail happy morn Thy cloudless sky, That blushes
in the new-born light ...” ’Pity because that number commences
with a particularly engaging cello solo and sections of the
aria are quite moving; but then it droops towards the risible
– a banality almost worthy of PDQ Bach.
Bass Louis Hurst is a magnificent glowering Sompnour; he shines
in his Act I song in which he sings of his ruthless tax-gathering
activities, “"Oh, gentle Sompnour, pray be kind: We're
in arrear — we own it. Pray thee do not be severe,” is delivered
in a witty whimpering- woman imitation. George Hulbert is a
pompous self-righteous Sheriff. His Act I duet and chorus ‘May
the saints protect and guide thee ...’ sung as he bids the Sompnour
a safe journey through Robin Hood’s forest is another delight.
Naxos provides a generous 16-page booklet. A full libretto,
including spoken dialogue, is available for downloading on the
Despite its unevenness, there is much to enjoy in this revival.
Of historical interest in the progress of the English Musical
see also THE
ROLE OF THE MUSIC EDITOR by Dr Valerie Langfield,
Music Editor: Robin Hood