This is an exciting and innovative CD.
Three things need to be said. Firstly, this new SOMM issue drives
yet another nail into the still-held adage that Victorian Great
Britain was a ‘land without music’. From first note
to last, these ten overtures display interest, character and
downright tunefulness. Granted that these ‘discoveries’
do not showcase music of the stature of a Berlioz, a Weber or
a Mendelssohn but there is nothing here that is unworthy of
anything being composed in the mid to late nineteenth century.
Note the word ‘opera’ in the CD title: these overtures
are from ‘grand’ operas and are not operettas, burlesques
or ballad operas. They need to be approached in that light.
Secondly, I do not intend to give a detailed history of the
life and work of the seven composers represented here save to
say that all of them are in the ‘forgotten’ category.
Furthermore, it would be a brave person who would automatically
declare that they were all ‘lost geniuses’ on the
strength of these recordings. What can be said is the every
one of them deserves re-evaluation. On the face of it, most
opera lovers will be au fait with the name Michael William
Balfe who is best remembered for one stage work or possibly
just two songs: the opera The Bohemian Girl, Killarney
and Come into the Garden Maud respectively. Enthusiasts
of British music may have recently heard Julius Benedict’s
two piano concertos on Hyperion,
many of William Vincent Wallace’s piano pieces on Naxos
or George Alexander Macfarren’s fine opera Robin
Hood and the 4th and 7th Symphonies
on CPO 999 433-2. Nonetheless, I imagine that for all but the
most committed aficionados of Victorian music the names of John
Barnett, Edward Loder and Arthur Goring Thomas will be simply
that - names.
Thirdly, I do not propose to discuss the ‘plots’
of the ten operas represented on this CD. The liner-notes give
sufficient information on this score.
However, a thumbnail sketch of the period and the genre may
be of some help. Most readers will be knowledgeable about the
German and Italian operas of Wagner, Donizetti, Verdi and Rossini.
The stage-works of UK-grown talent may be a little more obscure.
In many ways the attitude of opera-lovers today is similar to
that of 150 years ago. For most, serious opera means/meant Italian
opera - with German, French, Russian and Peter Grimes
having gained a secure foothold in the intervening years. In
the early to mid nineteenth century, Covent Garden staged virtually
nothing but Italian opera: German and French productions were
sometimes even translated into Italian for ‘convenience’.
Opera producers were not always faithful to the score either,
with interpolation of ‘original’ music by the conductor
being largely accepted, if not expected. Ernest Walker notes
that at that the time of Henry Bishop (1786-1855) ‘opera
had been a sort of third-rate theatrical medley, totally devoid
alike of art and of sense’. Things could only get better,
although I imagine that one day Bishop himself will be re-evaluated.
The lighter operas of Balfe, Wallace and Benedict had considerable
successes; however it was with John Barnett’s The Mountain
Sylph (overture performed here) that Britain could claim
anything approaching ‘grand opera’. It was at this
time that composers began to produce works that that had some
claim to musical and dramatic continuity of interest and respectability
of stage effect.
The overtures presented on this disc cover a span of some sixty
years so fall into the era of early and late Victorian. The
earliest is Barnett’s The Mountain Sylph with ‘book’
by Thackeray and the latest is Arthur Goring Thomas’ The
Golden Web dating from 1893. Only this last named work was
written after the massive achievement of Gilbert and Sullivan.
I enjoyed virtually every work on this CD. I would suggest that
the Edwardian music historian Ernest Walker’s dismissal
of most of this music as being ‘… artistically …
not worth a moment's consideration, the tunes are empty beyond
expression, and there is not a particle of any workmanship to
carry them off …’ is fundamentally disproved by
this collection of overtures. His further consideration that
‘… it is all artistically dead beyond the very faintest
hope of resurrection; and we need not feel any cause for lament’,
What does this music sound like? It is an unwise question to
ask, and an even more difficult one to answer. Each of these
composers had their own voice. However, we know so little of
their work that generalisations are inevitable. The prevailing
mood in all this music suggests Rossini, Weber, Auber and to
a certain extent anticipated Sullivan at his more ‘serious’.
I guess that ‘enjoyable’ is a better adjective to
describe the effect of this music than ‘challenging’.
There is nothing here to cause unease but plenty to give pleasure
and delight. This is all good music: it is by no means ‘great’
music, although there are moments when the composer seems to
approach genius. John Barnett’s The Mountain Sylph
is a good example. None of this is a problem. Indeed, not every
bar of every opera by Verdi or Wagner is ‘great’
This CD is a fine production. The sound recording is always
clear and well-balanced. The Victorian Opera Orchestra is made
up of players from around the North West of England. Their president
and guest conductor is Richard Bonynge who is an acknowledged
expert in Victorian opera: he has made a large number of ballet
and operatic recordings over the years. Orchestra and maestro
take each of these overtures seriously and their playing is
never overstated or condescending. Victorian
Opera Northwest, the group which has overseen the project,
is dedicated to the promotion of ‘the excellent forgotten
music of 19th century operas by British and Irish composers’.
They also produce scores and performing editions of operas and
overtures which are available for hire and include a number
of the works recorded on this CD.
The liner-notes form a good essay on Victorian opera and ought
to be read before exploring the music. The first section is
a brief overview of ‘The English Opera movement’
in the nineteenth century. This is followed by a detailed discussion
of each opera and its overture.
The booklet features a number of stunning music covers of ‘overtures
and popular Dance Selections from the operas’ by courtesy
of the Richard Bonynge Archives. The impressive cover photograph
is of Covent Garden circa 1850.
This outstanding CD is an important link in the rediscovery
and re-evaluation of a generation of operatic tradition that
has been largely ignored, if not quite lost. It is a rediscovery
that I would never have guessed would have occurred when I first
began to read about British Music in the early nineteen-seventies.
However, there is much to be done. Not everything can be performed.
Michael Balfe wrote more than two dozen operas. Not all of them
can be revived and no doubt not all of them deserve the complex
‘archaeological digging’ required to present them
in a costume or concert version for our age. However a sterling
start has been made: witness the recent recording of Macfarren’s
Robin Hood on Naxos
and Wallace’s Lurline
and Balfe’s The
Maid of Artois by Victorian Opera Northwest. Most of
Arthur Sullivan’s operas (as opposed to the G&S collaborations)
are now available on CD. Recently a new book has been published
by Dr. Andrew Lamb about William Vincent Wallace (Fullers
Wood Press, 2012).
There is much to be done, however it is good that a solid start
has been made. There are plenty of operas and composers to explore.
Let us hope that this work continues with alacrity.
The track listing in the booklet gives the date for Wallace's
Love's Triumph as 1864, while the booklet notes say 1862, which
is correct. The London Standard for Saturday 15 November 1862
announces the first performance of Wallace’s new opera
Love’s Triumph on that evening at Covent Garden.