When England's Victorian Opera brought out their recording of Lurline, I hailed it as a double success: both as an historical document and as a jolly good listen. Now the organisation has followed up with Macfarren's opera, Robin Hood, and I can only repeat my former comment. Only more so.
Robin Hood is an absolutely English opera, written by a proven and sophisticated English playwright, and composed by a successful English composer, on the most wholly English of subjects. It looks English, it sounds English, it simply couldn't be anything else ... it just smells English.
It is also utterly typical of its time, conventional even, and in no way tries anything new in its music. We have a Florestan-cum-Fairfax prison scene for tenor, we have a Henry Phillips distraught father scena for the baritone, oodles of Malibran bravura for the prima donna, who in time-honoured fashion puts the denouement on hold while she does her vocalises, touches of English part-singing, a little bit of buffo, and there is a lilting take-away Sims Reeves ballad for ... well, for Sims Reeves.
And it's all absolutely splendid stuff of its kind.
Robin Hood is a star vehicle. Robin and Marian dominate the show and the score, and Macfarren has made their roles long and hard. Producer, E T Smith, who always did things in grandiose fashion, cast them with England's megastar tenor, Sims Reeves, and one of the best coloratura vocalists on the European concert scene, Helen Lemmens-Sherrington, who, I am quite sure, both vocally had their parts tailored to fit. He got Charles Santley, too, to play the Sheriff, who was duly made into a nice chap rather than the nasty henchman of Prince John we are used to. Top English singers Josephine Lemaire and William Parkinson took the little parts, but really, the show is all Robin and Marion, with occasional interludes by Santley. And a chorus of many. Since the Robin and Marion were huge public favourites, and the piece a fine one, lavishly staged, Smith had a splendid hit on his hands.
Victorian Opera had a task on its hands. Having had to cast Malibran and Louisa Pyne for its last two discs, now they had to cast Sims Reeves and Mme Lemmens. It can't be done, of course, but they have had a darned good try. Nicky Spence (Robin) lilts and thrills nicely. He drives the show's big hit, 'My Own, My Guiding Star', along in a ringing way that shows why it was a hit, and I particularly liked his moody prison scene. Kay Jordan (Marion) flings herself bravely into the hectic bravuras, but I liked her best when she joined the delicious mezzo Magdalen Ashman in the merry 'To the fair'. Miss Ashman also started things rolling with the grand 'The hunters awake'.
Geoffrey Hulbert sang the Sheriff's show-off scena ('My child has fled') vigorously, Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks was a merry Allan, and I found perhaps the most unalloyed joy on the discs in the ensembles and part-singing. Macfarren really could write for English voices, and English singers -- as proven here -- can sing his work a treat. With hardly a modified vowel.
If all this sounds a bit uncritical ... haven't I any complaints? Well, one or two of the Sims Reeves solos are a bit too conventional to be true -- their titles give it away: 'Englishmen by birth', 'The grasping Norman' -- but they were well liked in their time. So was buffo 'The Monk within his cell' -- created by comedian George Honey -- which I feel should rollick more. But it comes down to this: if you like the conventions -- the ballads, the scenas and the bravuras -- of 19th century English opera, and I do, very much indeed -- and the utter Englishness of it all, with its round and glee singing, it would be hard to find a more enjoyable opera than Robin Hood.
And unless you can raise Reeves and Mme Lemmens (to listen only, not look -- they were both vastly unheroic and unromantic-looking), I can't imagine it being more pleasingly and effectively presented than it is on this disc.
Next one, please, Victorian Opera.