George Alexander MACFARREN (1813-1887)
Robin Hood - A Romantic English Opera in three acts (1860) [158:33]
Robin Hood (in disguise as Locksley) - Nicky Spence (tenor)
Marian (daughter of the Sheriff) - Kay Jordan (soprano)
Sir Reginald d’Bracy (Sheriff of Nottingham) - George Hulbert (baritone)
Alice (Marian’s attendant) - Magdalen Ashman (mezzo)
Hugo (Sompnour, Collector of Abbey dues) - Louis Hurst (bass)
Allan-a-Dale (a young peasant) - Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks (tenor)
Little John - John Molloy (bass)
Much, the Miller’s son - Alex Knox (baritone)
John Powell Singers
Victorian Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Ronald Corp
rec. Urmston Grammar School, Manchester, England, 6-7 March 2010
NAXOS 8.660306-07 [78:36 + 79:57]
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 Naxos web site.
Despite its unevenness, there is much to enjoy in this revival. Of historical interest in the progress of the English Musical Renaissance
Much to enjoy in this revival.