Macfarren: Robin Hood / Corp, Victorian Opera Chorus And Orchestra

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A great work; possibly the composer’s masterpiece.

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 20 th 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 interchangeable crooks.

The CD liner-notes provide a synopsis of the opera and the full libretto 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 Scott’s Ivanhoe.

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 concerned.

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 well-loved story.

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.

-- John France, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8660306-07

  • UPC: 730099030670

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: George Alexander Macfarren

  • Conductor: Ronald Corp

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: John Powell Singers, Victorian Opera Chorus, Victorian Opera Orchestra

  • Performer: Alex Knox, Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks, George Hulbert, John Molloy, Jordan Kay, Louis Hurst, Magdalrn Ahsman, Nicky Spence