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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on 30 September 2011
The second Naxos release by Victorian Opera Northwest brings us to a major work by one of the 'big names' in Victorian music, (Sir) George Alexander Macfarren (1813-1887). Long-term Principal at the Royal Academy of Music, he was as famed in his lifetime for his operas, cantatas and oratorios as he was for his dogged determination not to let encroaching and finally total blindness stem his creative output.

If William Wallace's 'Lurline' is cake and champagne (Wallace: Lurline), Macfarren's 'Robin Hood' is most definitely bread and ale. Gone is the harp-festooned luxury and easily-assimilated melody of the former, replaced with - what, exactly?

There is a bluff open-heartedness in the musical idiom which suits the story and setting down to the ground. The lack of surface allure may seem somewhat stark to listeners on first hearing, but on repetition little melodic motifs catch the attention and the folk-like character of many of the tunes begins to etch them in the mind. There is colour in the orchestration, but it seldom pushes its way forward for prime attention.

From the opening of the overture to the final chorus, we are in no doubt that this is most definitely a self-conscious attempt to continue and advance a specifically English operatic style, with its evocative horn calls, simple diatonic melodies and occasional `rustic pipe-and-tabor' approach. The influence of Weber is shown in several extended scenas, but for the most part this is very much a `ballad' opera in the honourable English tradition.

There is quite a substantial quantity of purely orchestral music in the opera, with lengthy character-entrances, Entr'actes and a section of country dances in Act II; and there is considerable work for the chorus to do - several numbers are effectively unaccompanied part-songs (there is a particularly lengthy one towards the end of the last act which, beautifully sung though it may be, perhaps outstays its welcome as a second verse is taken). This is a long opera on two discs filled to capacity, but I was so fascinated by what Macfarren was clearly trying to do (and largely succeeding) that my attention was held throughout.

The performance is, on the whole, extremely capable: if you can listen past the occasional violin frailty or lack of absolute choral precision there is more than enough good work on display to ensure that the opera comes to life. Although the impression is of simple melodies, this is not easy music to sing - Macfarren's vocal lines often have unexpected interval leaps and turns to catch the unwary: the soloists acquit themselves well in this completely unfamiliar music. The one concession to the public's appetite for show involves Marian's occasional coloratura trilling and swooping up and down scales (in the Act III finale she literally stops the show with an extraordinary display of vocal gymnastics) - otherwise, it is remarkable how little Macfarren relies on operatic `tricks' to tickle the ear.

Shaw's comment that Sullivan's 'Ivanhoe' (1890-91) was no great advance on Macfarren's opera was, of course, an intentionally provocative piece of 'smart' journalism with very little substance but there are distinct links between these two composers. Sullivan's melodic talent and orchestral sophistication was leaps and bounds ahead of his predecessor, but to hear "Englishmen by birth are free" may well put you in mind of the (real or mock) patriotism in several Sullivan scores, and Sullivan's skilled economy of instrumentation may have at least some of its roots in Macfarren's lean, no-nonsense scoring. The first act opens with what develops (briefly) into a double-chorus, a structure later to become so characteristic in Sullivan's armoury.

Am I glad to have heard this recording, will I want to listen to it again, and do I now still want to hear Macfarren's other large-scale operas 'Charles II' (1849), 'She Stoops to Conquer' (1864) and 'Helvellyn' (1864)? Yes. It would also be a treat to hear one of Edward Loder's very fine scores, particularly 'The Night Dancers' (1846) based on the 'Giselle' story, or the Victor Hugo-inspired 'Esmeralda' (1883) by Arthur Goring Thomas.

All power to this highly enterprising semi-professional opera group as they continue to fill important gaps in our knowledge of Britain's musical heritage.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 1 December 2011
All credit to Naxos for recording this 'romantic English opera' from 1860; it is always interesting to hear these neglected pieces and form one's own opinion. This one is quite long (two discs of nearly 80 minutes each), and it would be good to be able to report that it is worth the trouble; but really there is very little distinctive music here, and some of the items are the sort of thing that gave 'Victorian music' a bad name (such as the faintly embarrassing part song in Act III scene 2).

Maybe with more able advocacy this would have come up better, but the general standard of performance is not much above semi-professional. The recording is clear and some of the singing and orchestral playing is fine; but several of the solo voices sound to be under strain, and the orchestral tutti sounds pretty thin.

If you want to explore the genre, as I did, then it is a worthy introduction, but it is only fair to mention these reservations.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 12 July 2012
This is another of those recordings that I really wanted to like and about which I can muster no enthusiasm. It's worth hearing if you're very curious about the state of English opera in the mid-nineteenth century. By the witness of this offering, it was in a pretty sorry state, indeed. The music is pleasant, tuneful and thoroughly forgettable. The only piece that made any favourable impression on me was the part-song early in the last act. However, that impression faded when, after 2 and a half minutes, I thought it song was coming to an end, only to be follow by another verse just as long. It was rather nice, but it over stayed its welcome.

The libretto hasn't worn particularly well, either. It's full of the felicities of which Gilbert and Sullivan were later to make such fun. There's a fine example in the finale: Robin Hood, "Oh Joy!" Maid Marian, "Oh Rapture!" G&S put it better in "Pinafore" with, "Oh Joy, Oh Rapture unforeseen!" And I can't resist mentioning Nanki Poo's famous, "Modified Rapture!"

I might have been better impressed if the performance had been better. I don't think I would, but it is a possibility. Alas, the performance isn't very inspiring. It's adequate, at best, and occasionally less than. The orchestra and chorus are good - on the order of what one would hear in a regional opera company. The principals are, without exception, over-taxed by their parts. Though none of the voices are really bad, none of them are very good either. They manage, but not without the random shout or scream to reach a high note.

The program notes indicate that this work was one of the more successful English operas of the period. If this was one of the best, it's easy to understand why they've been forgotten. Indeed, with this background, the accomplishments of Gilbert and Sullivan are all the more impressive. Perhaps that's because G&S didn't take themselves too seriously.

I enjoyed listening to this, though I doubt that I'll ever play it again. On the whole the best I can say is that I shall honour the effort as I cannot praise the result.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 8 October 2011
A fascinating recording, on the whole adequately sung by the principals and chorus. The orchestra is in need of more strings but again is adequate and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. and a very enjoyable listen! A professional recording studio would probably have helped everyone - a school hall(which I assume was the venue?) does not have the right qualities to give a bloom to the sound and justice to the singers.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 6 November 2011
A fascinating piece of victoriana, and musically engaging. It is very well sung by the cast among whom George Hulbert as the Sherriff of Nottingham stands out. I hope the producers give us more of the same, some of Balfe's operas for example.
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