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.