Julius BENEDICT (1804-1885) The Lily of Killarney (1862) John BARNETT (1802-1890) The Mountain Sylph (1834) Michael William BALFE (1808-1870) The Siege of Rochelle (1835) Le Puits D’Amour (1843) Edward LODER (1813-1865) The Night Dancers (1846) William Vincent WALLACE (1812-1865) Lurline (1860) The Amber Witch (1861) Love’s Triumph, prelude (1864?) George Alexander MACFARREN (1813-1887) She Stoops to Conquer (1864) Arthur Goring THOMAS (1850-1892) The Golden Web (1893)
Victorian Opera Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
This is an exciting and innovative CD. Three things need to be said. Firstly, this new SOMM disc adds yet another nail into the still-held adage that Victorian Great Britain was a ‘land without music.’ From the first note to the 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 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 the seven composers represented here save to say that all of them are in the category ‘forgotten.’ 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. 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.
And thirdly, I do not propose to discuss the ‘plots’ of the 10 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, however, the home-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 60 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,’ seems untenable.
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 composer seems to approach genius. John Barnett’s The Mountain Sylph being a good example. None of this is a problem. Not every bar of every opera by Verdi or Wagner is ‘great’ music.
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: 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 and this is followed by a detailed discussion of each opera and its overture. However, was Love’s Triumph first performed in 1864 as stated here on the track listings, or in 1862?* 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 an important start has been made: witness the recent recording of Macfarren’s Robin Hood on Naxos 8.660306-07 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 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. The booklet, however, gives the correct date.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.