George Alexander MACFARREN (1813-1887)
Robin Hood - opera in three acts (performing edition by Valerie Langfield) (1860)
Nicky Spence (tenor) - Robin Hood/Locksley; George Hulbert (baritone) – Sheriff; Louis Hurst (bass) – Sompnour; Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks (tenor) – Allan; John Molloy (bass) - Little John; Alex Knox (baritone) - Much, the Miller’s son; Kay Jordan (soprano) – Marian; Magdalen Ashman (mezzo) – Alice; John Powell Singers, Victorian Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Ronald Corp
rec. 6-7 March 2010, Urmston Grammar School, Manchester, UK
Includes detailed notes and synopsis
Libretto downloadable from the Naxos site
NAXOS 8.660306-07 [78:36 + 79:57]
The myth that England was the “land without music” has been leaking like a sieve for years. Disparagers of the British product could nonetheless cling to the dictum that this country produced no viable opera between Dido and Aeneas and Peter Grimes. It was, after all, vastly expensive to attempt to prove otherwise. Operas have to be seen as well as heard, so ultimately nothing but a flourishing opera house, regularly presenting works such as Robin Hood in performances and productions of the standard we take for granted in Weber, Donizetti or Bizet, could prove the point definitely one way or another. A costly exercise indeed if it only confirmed what disparagers have always said, namely that the point was proved over a century ago and the operas have enjoyed just oblivion ever since. Or if the works simply don’t appeal to today’s public.
This latter could be an issue. Thanks to the efforts of Victorian Opera and others, we now have available at least a glimpse of this large but submerged repertoire (link). It is becoming evident that the concept of opera dominant in 19th century Great Britain was one that gradually lost out to the continental European preference for all-sung opera. Of the English school, Macfarren was perhaps the most radical and unrepentant, critical even of Balfe’s timid attempts at eliminating spoken dialogue.
For today’s audiences, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is his great operatic masterpiece. Though one of the earliest operas in the general repertoire, it conforms to our idea of what opera should be – as do the still earlier works of Monteverdi – because it is all sung. But Macfarren, one of the editors of the Purcell Edition, didn’t see it that way. For him King Arthur was the great model. For most of us today, Purcell’s other operatic works, in which the action itself is carried forward by spoken dialogue, have to be explained away by inventing terms like “semi-opera”, and arouse regret that so much great music should be buried in problematic contexts. Macfarren, on the other hand, held that Purcell, after the early Dido, had rejected “the authority of Italy” and, rightly in Macfarren’s view, set about creating an opera which was “a Drama of which Music formed a necessary, frequent and integral part, but of which the dialogue was spoken”. King Arthur was a model not only in this but in its choice of an intensely national subject.
I should say, at this point, that I am indebted to David Chandler’s note for much of the information in this review, but the reader should not take the conclusions I draw from it as necessarily reflecting Chandler’s.
So here we have Macfarren backing his own theories with an opera on about as English a subject as can be imagined, its spoken dialogue interspersed with songs and ensembles plus some fuller musical development in the finales. Without being in any way “folksy”, Macfarren’s musical language is easily recognizable as “English”, drawing as it does on the fund of clear-cut melody, bluff but not unfeeling, patriotic but not tub-thumping, that had never run entirely dry during the “dark ages” stretching from Arne and Boyce through Shield to Dibdin and Loder. It is not a comic opera, since it is not “funny” in the Gilbert and Sullivan manner, but the French would have called it an “opéra-comique”, meaning that, while there is pathos and dramatic confrontation along the way, it is not tragic and everything resolves very nicely except for the scheming Sompnour who gets his just deserts.
For his Victorian contemporaries, Macfarren had it spot-on. Robin Hood was an enormous success and was still playing towards the end of the century. Nonetheless, the “authority of Italy” was encroaching. Not to speak of the authority of Germany which, in Wagner’s hands, abolished recitative and drew the action into a continuous musical development. Macfarren, not surprisingly, felt that Wagner was “working a great evil on music”. When Stanford met Macfarren by chance in a Bond Street music shop and unwisely mentioned his forthcoming trip to Bayreuth, he was “roundly and loudly rated” in public, “ending with an expression of contemptuous pity”. Learning that Parry also planned to visit Bayreuth, Macfarren wrote to him that “An earthquake would be good that would swallow up the spot and everybody on it”.
Alas for Macfarren’s theories, today’s post-Wagnerian opera-goers tend to be uneasy with operas – except actual comic ones – that have spoken dialogue. Probably only two – Die Zauberflöte and Fidelio – have been totally accepted, on the grounds that their musical quality overrides all other considerations. Not even the ur-Carmen – minus Guiraud’s recitatives – has been universally adopted.
There seems no inherent reason why “English romantic opera” – to use the term by which these pieces tend to be described today – should not have survived at least on a local basis. One might make a comparison with the Spanish zarzuela, which is basically “Spanish romantic opera”, complete with dialogue. Though this repertoire has travelled very little outside Spain it has nevertheless remained an essential part of Spanish musical life.
Spanish zarzuelas, when we actually hear something from one of them, seem to contain a lot of very attractive music. So was the problem with “English romantic opera” that it just wasn’t very good?
Restricting the discussion to the work in hand, there seems little doubt that it’s pretty good. The tunes are attractive, the ensemble pieces are well-wrought, the orchestration is colourful with some beautiful writing for solo clarinet and cello. The English quality described above gives it a distinctly individual flavour. Today’s opera-goers will particularly appreciate the final numbers, where the story-telling is drawn into the music at last and Macfarren controls the pace in a way that makes one regret that he never wrote the all-sung opera he could evidently have handled very nicely. And, while Macfarren would presumably have bridled if anyone suggested he was using leitmotifs, tunes nevertheless do return in association with specific ideas. In particular, the “true love” theme had got itself well and truly fixed in my head by the end. British opera composers had actually been using recurring motifs since well before Wagner’s, or Macfarren’s, day – see Eric Blom: Bishop’s Theme Song (in Blom: A Musical Postbag, Dent, 1941). Lastly, while most of the vocal lines are of a ballad type, Macfarren does expect big ranges from his singers and the leading soprano has bursts of exuberant coloratura, not to speak of more than one top D. This ruled out Robin Hood for the sort of amateur companies that kept The Bohemian Girl and Maritana alive long after the big opera houses had dropped them.
Thus far so good, but maybe more is needed. I’ve looked at, and played through, quite a bit of Macfarren over the years. My impression is that his music is usually resourceful and inventive enough to hold the attention. He had a good fund of agreeable melody. In spite of his professorial image, he wears his academic robes lightly. What he doesn’t seem to have is something I would call vision. If we make a comparison with Parry, whose music shows a similar sturdy Englishness without being “folksy”, Parry quite often goes beyond this with moments of real inspiration, sublimity and, in a word, vision. I have yet to find any moments of this kind in Macfarren.
The later stages of Robin Hood do take fire, however, and the performers bring their best to them. Elsewhere things are patchy. The first vocal contribution, from Allan, promises – or threatens – a distinctly provincial standard of singing, and the Sheriff and the Sompnour, while getting round their notes neatly, lack the sort of Sesto Bruscantini-like ring that is surely wanted. Nicky Spence sings very well as Robin Hood, however, though a more heroic timbre would not have come amiss. Best of all is Kay Jordan as Marian, seemingly unfazed by Macfarren’s sometimes extreme coloratura demands and well in command of her top Ds.
I realize that the costs of recording an unknown opera meant that the performers had to keep going with a minimum of retakes but it has to be said that ensemble is often awry and orchestral raggedness is more the norm than the exception. The opening of Marian’s aria with cello obbligato would surely have warranted a retake in the interests of at least a minimum of coordination. Perhaps this would have mattered little if there had been a less cautious feeling to much of it. The allegros lilt along quite nicely and the andantes amble along very pleasantly. Would it have been worth pushing both to extremes, seeking a sense of vital involvement in the former and bringing to the latter the expressive weight that the lines look as if they could bear? Not long ago I was listening to soprano Véronique Gens and conductor Christophe Rousset using a wealth of imagination and interpretative guile to bring life to operatic scenes by Méhul, Kreutzer, Gossec and others that are probably not inherently finer music than Macfarren’s, but were made to seem so. Only by making the experiment could it be established if such an approach would be a vain attempt to inject stature into a modest work or would reveal potentialities in the music unrealized here.
And then there is the matter of the spoken dialogue. The booklet hedges around the issue. We are told in a general way about Macfarren’s preference for developing the action through spoken dialogue, but when the discussion centres upon Robin Hood no attempt is made to explain or justify the fact that there is no dialogue here. I was recently complaining about the same thing when discussing Wallace’s Maritana. Here, as there, we can’t hear how the action proceeds and how the music slots into it. We can therefore have no idea whether the opera is dramatically and theatrically viable. We just listen to a collection of single pieces, except in the finales, which give the impression that Macfarren and his librettist John Oxenford knew what they were doing. The libretto downloadable from the Naxos site just gives what is sung, so there is not even the option of stopping the disc and reading the dialogue.
Looking at the timings, it can be seen that including the dialogue, even severely cut, would have meant three CDs. But is it a two-CD opera anyway? It is now possible to download the vocal score from the IMSLP-Petrucci library. Following the performance with this it turns out that several numbers are very substantially cut. In particular, we get little more than a whistle-stop tour through the dances at the beginning of CD 2.
But before accusing these performers of hacking the score down themselves, I get the impression that the manuscript they are following – which I imagine is the only orchestral material surviving – is a somewhat different version of the work to that published in the vocal score. Apart from the cuts there are many differences of notes – far more than could be accounted for by occasional mistakes in performance that there was no time to correct. At one point the order of the numbers is changed. Significantly, towards the end a brief spot of accompanied recitative sung here is replaced in the vocal score by a page of more developed music, setting the same words. So I think the manuscript must represent a first version, the vocal score a revision. The booklet here actually reproduces the title page of the vocal score, noting that it “contained text improvements made during the opening run”. It would have been interesting to have been told more. Does no orchestral material survive for these improvements? Or were they not used because the first version, shorn of dialogue, fitted neatly onto two CDs?
Whatever my reservations, it is clear that anyone even minimally interested in opera in Victorian England needs to get this set. It is also clear that the standards are infinitely higher than those we used to have to put up with if we were to hear such works at all. The 1970s Rare Recorded Edition set of Balfe’s The Daughter of St. Mark (SRRE141-2), taken from an amateur production, might be cited. But, for the reasons given above, it still doesn’t tell us whether Robin Hood is a viable opera or not.
Anyone even minimally interested in opera in Victorian England needs to get this set.
A POSTSCRIPT TO “ROBIN HOOD”:
CLIFFORD BAX ON ENGLISH OPERA
Shortly after completing my review of Macfarren’s opera “Robin Hood” I chanced upon an article by Clifford Bax, “The British Composer in the Theatre”. Clifford Bax (1886-1962) was the brother of the composer Arnold Bax and a leading playwright for at least two decades.
When discussing “Robin Hood” I explained how British operas in the 19th century were based on the principle that the action of the piece was carried forward by spoken dialogue, illustrated and commented by the music. This type of opera – except in actual operetta – tends to be problematic for a modern public. I tried to make it clear, however, that British opera composers of the day, and Macfarren in particular, were ideologically committed to what the latter described as “a Drama of which Music formed a necessary, frequent, and integral part, but of which the dialogue was spoken”. Macfarren took a leading role in the Purcell revival and edited both “Dido and Aeneas” and “King Arthur” for the Musical Antiquarian Society. Contrary to present-day thinking, Macfarren and the MAS held that “Dido” was an early deviation towards the Italian style, while in “King Arthur” Purcell had rejected “the authority of Italy”, creating a blueprint for a genuine English style of opera.
All this has already been said in my review of “Robin Hood”, but it seemed necessary to restate it as the premises for what follows. As I understood the situation, by the end of the 19th century the “authority of Italy”, as well as that of Germany, had taken over. Verdi, Wagner and Puccini between them represented the operatic models and spoken dialogue was relegated to operetta. Bax’s article suggests that the matter was not quite so cut and dried.
The cutting is from the “Radio Times” of January 5th. Unfortunately, in those days it seems there was no need to specify the actual year. However, the cutting comes in a bundle of several others, one of them dated 1933, and a personal letter dated 1931, all folded into a second-hand copy of Eaglefield Hull’s biography of Cyril Scott which the original owner bought in 1931. Other references to contemporary events confirm a date in the early 1930s.
The simple solution would have been to reproduce the article as it stands, but Clifford Bax’s work is not yet in the public domain so I prefer to play safe by quoting and commenting upon his salient points.
Bax begins by dismissing Grand Opera altogether, “for although there are people in this country who relish it, most of us find it insufferably tedious; and our composers, knowing that no English opera is likely to be performed anywhere, are seldom willing to spend two years in the creation of an unwanted work”. The reason, he claims, is “not that we are unmusical but, rather, that we have more sense of literature than of any other art”, and “most Englishmen like to experience their music and their drama separately”. He concedes that some “musically-serious” operas have been written in England, citing Smyth, Vaughan Williams, Holst and Boughton: “but there it is – these operas have merely proven again that we do not care for opera nearly so much as we care for drama”.
Casting an eye for alternative forms, Bax looks at “revues and musical comedies” and finds that “their musical appeal seems to stop at the making of a cheerful noise”. Even further down the slippery slope, American dance-music “seems content to achieve an energetic cacophony”.
He finds, though, that the British certainly do respond to comic or ballad opera, “largely because in these forms the story and the drama, for what they may be worth, are not buried beneath the music”. He notes that the Savoy operas of Gilbert and Sullivan “somewhat surprisingly … retain their popularity” – he does not explain why this is surprising. And “When these operas were followed by the work of Edward German, a composer whom all other composers praise, it looked as though light operas would become a permanent part of our dramatic fare”. Alas, the type “degenerated so quickly as very soon to become unrecognisable, and the serious composer found himself again outside the theatre”.
Then, “during the reign of Sir Nigel Playfair at the Lyric, Hammersmith, we discovered the charm of ballad-opera”.
Sir Nigel Playfair was certainly a notable figure in British theatre. His 1919 production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”, which opened in Stratford, was controversial at first, but later described by Sylvan Barnett as “the play’s first modern production”. He is said to have commissioned Richard Hughes’s “Danger” which, on 15 January 1924, became the world’s first radio play.
Playfair had been considering “The Beggar’s Opera” since 1914 and it was with this that the Hammersmith adventure opened. The music was “arranged and composed” – present-day musicologists would describe the process less flatteringly – by Frederic Austin, as was that for its sequel “Polly”. Other notable ballad operas performed at the lyric and listed by Bax are “The Fountain of Youth” and “Derby Day” by Alfred Reynolds, “La Vie Parisienne” by Davies Adams (vaguely based on Offenbach’s operetta of that name), “Tantivy Towers” by Dunhill and “Midsummer Madness” by Armstrong Gibbs. Away from the Lyric, Martin Shaw is particularly mentioned for “air after captivating air” in “Brer Rabbit”, “Philomel” and “Mr. Pepys”. Bax also mentions Ernest Irving’s “original and arresting music” for “The Circle of Chalk”; “and a few may recall the austere beauty of the harp-and-flute music which Alfred Reynolds wrote for a play about Socrates”.
It should come as no great surprise if the “few” referred to included Bax himself, since he was the author of the play. Indeed, it is difficult to decide whether he is being modest or subliminally plugging his wares when he omits to mention that the play, libretto, book or whatever you call it for about half the pieces he mentions was written by himself: “Polly” (1922), “Midsummer Madness” (1924), “Mr. Pepys” (1926) – “a ballad opera which, chiefly by virtue of his [Martin Shaw’s] merry and winsome music, broke all box office records at the Everyman Theatre” – and “Socrates” (1930). “Philomel”, too, had lyrics by Bax, though the play itself was by Jefferson Farjeon. Many of the other pieces had the play written by A.P. Herbert, another major figure of the time.
At the time Bax was writing, Playfair had just withdrawn from the scene, and “darkness fell upon the theatre-composer”. But “our public had shown so lively an appreciation of ballad-opera that it cannot be long, I think, before other managers experiment with this light and engaging dramatic form”. This did not happen, unless one is to seek it in the modern musical. But Bax meant, I think, a form which, while “light” in one sense, nevertheless offered full artistic scope for composers who operated in all fields. The credentials of Dunhill, Armstrong Gibbs and Martin Shaw to be considered serious all-round composers are not in doubt. Nor, probably, are those of Frederic Austin and Alfred Reynolds if we did but know them. There seems to be something cyclical about the process: Gay and “The Beggars Opera” in the 18th century, Macfarren et al in the mid 19th century, Dunhill, Gibbs, Shaw et al in the 1920s. Are we to expect another attempt soon?
Whether or not this happens, the fact remains that, several decades after the attempt by Macfarren and others to establish a true English opera based on spoken dialogue had been presumed dead and buried, another attempt was in full fling, and apparently drawing the crowds. So should we be rediscovering these works, as we are timidly rediscovering Victorian romantic opera? If we do, we might bear in mind Bax’s parting shot.
“There is, however, one serious drawback to ballad-opera – the unbelievably atrocious diction of all but a very few singers. … We are all familiar with the wobbling baritones, the tenors who seem to be uttering sounds from the back of the neck, mooing contraltos and ‘sopranos of the highest squeakery’, not one of whom enables us to hear a word of the poem which he or she is singing”. Their successors are still around.
Another question is, what to do with the spoken dialogue itself? The recent recording of “Robin Hood” omitted it entirely, as did a recording of “Maritana” that came my way recently. It seems self-evident that, if the whole philosophy of the composer aimed at creating an opera in which the action is carried forward by spoken dialogue, we cannot judge his work properly unless we hear just how words and music were combined. In the case of the 1920s pieces, the experiment of recording them with the full spoken text should be a fairly painless one, since the authors – Bax himself, A.P. Herbert and others – were at least as highly regarded in their day as the composers.