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Edward James LODER (1809-1865)
Raymond and Agnes (1855, revised 1859) [148.36]
Mark Milhofer (tenor) – Raymond, Majella Cullagh (soprano) – Agnes, Andrew Greenan (bass) – Baron, Carolyn Dobson (mezzo-soprano) – Madalina, Quentin Hayes (baritone) – Antoni, Alessandro Fisher (tenor) – Theodore, Alexander Robin Baker (baritone) – Francesco, Timothy Langston (tenor) – Landlord, Phil Wilcox (baritone) – Roberto, David Horton (tenor) – Martini, Valerie Longford (spoken role) – Ravella, Retrospect Opera Chorus, Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Richard Bonynge
rec. St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, London, 2017
RETROSPECT OPERA RO005 [72:44+75:52]

The exploration of the murky world of British Victorian opera proceeds in a new direction with this first-ever complete recording of Raymond and Agnes by Edward James Loder in a revised performing edition by Valerie Langford. Earlier explorations of this territory have largely centred around the works of William Balfe, whose tuneful ballad-operas commanded a considerably following in their day but whose memory nowadays is largely confined to the single number I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls from The Bohemian Girl. Apart from an archive recording of the complete score of that opera conducted (and substantially re-arranged) by Beecham, the not inconsiderable merits of the music were amply displayed in a two-CD set conducted by Richard Bonynge which has been intermittently available for some 25 years now; and it is Bonynge, too, who conducts this revival of Raymond and Agnes which has otherwise been totally neglected on record until now.

Indeed, the reception of Raymond and Agnes even in its own day seems to have been decidedly on the lukewarm side: a brief run in Manchester, followed by a London revival some years later in what even then seems to have been recognised as an abysmally bad performance. After that the opera vanished altogether until a revival in 1968 arranged by Nicholas Temperley (who contributes an enthusiastic note to the booklet on this new release) and a BBC broadcast of excerpts in the 1990s. This release therefore provides a valuable service in making the score available to general audiences, and is enhanced by the inclusion of a complete printed libretto and the full spoken dialogue (in marked contrast to the recent release of Cellier’s The Mountebanks). Unlike Bonynge’s Bohemian Girl this dialogue is delivered throughout by the singers themselves; and a good fist they make of it too, not hamming it up as must have been the temptations in places, and even underplaying the melodrama at certain points. There is always an increased sense of dramatic verisimilitude when singers speak their own dialogue, and that is certainly the case here although Quentin Hayes’s spoken voice sounds disconcertingly higher than his singing one.

The great downfall of British nineteenth century operas before the advent of Gilbert and Sullivan was almost invariably the execrably awful nature of their texts; Valerie Langford informs us that she made some alterations to the dialogue in the interests of clarity, but it has to be observed that the dramatic plot by the melodramatic Edward Fitzball (1792-1873) is rambling in the extreme, quite apart from some unintentionally comic phraseology. Fitzball seems to have taken the basic outline of Weber’s Der Freischütz (very popular with London audiences) and filled it out with supernatural episodes culled from Edward Lewis’s Gothic horror novel The Monk and his mercifully forgotten play The Castle Spectre. The resulting mishmash makes Schumann’s Genoveva look like a model of dramatic rectitude (no mean feat). But it does at least provide Loder with some genuinely theatrical situations which invite musical setting, and it is pleasing to note that the composer rises to the challenge with music that has a decidedly Weberian ring and cachet.

That does not avoid the evident need, which Loder clearly felt as strongly as Balfe or Wallace, to provide a string of songs and ballads which would cater for the insatiable Victorian appetite of solo amateurs who would gather round the piano for their evening entertainment. And it is here that Loder rather falls down, as contemporary critics were quick to observe: the elaborate decoration of the vocal lines in many of the ‘arias’ would have challenged most amateurs and defeated many of them utterly (no matter how well-trained). Indeed some of the roulades which are called for have an almost Rossinian ring; and the extended range called for in the bass role of the Baron, rising to baritonal heights and then descending to a low E below the staff, lie well outside the expectations of the average Victorian chorister. The other unfortunate result of the need to cater for the commercial market by the inclusion of these extractable items is that the dramatic head of steam which has been built up during the preceding passages is sometimes disastrously sacrificed, as in the supernatural conjuration at the beginning of Act Three which suddenly is interrupted by the placid tones of the soprano singing “Ah! men, who with relentless hearts ev’ry law of honour break” [CD2, track 14].

It is surely no accident that the name of the soprano heroine, Agnes, was that employed in English translations of Der Freischutz in place of the original German Agathe. The two characters are more or less identical in style and motivation, with a sense of equanimity hardly musically ruffled by the horrific events that surround them. The two principal men, although again the model of Weber is evident, have rather more meat to their characters. Raymond indeed surpasses Max in Der Freischütz with his heroics, where an almost Wagnerian ring enters into the music at times; but then he can lapse into sugary sentiment as in his aria “Farewell the blue and starry sky” delivered before his anticipated execution [CD2, track 16], and occasional lunges into the Rossinian stratosphere as in his opening solo “Yes, if upon the mountain’s brow” [CD1, track 1]. The rival Baron is perhaps more interesting with his occasionally bouts of conscience-stricken remorse, but there are times when his stock melodramatic villainy becomes simply hectoring. The other characters are dramatic ciphers, but I am unsure how far we are meant to take them seriously. The editor of this edition somewhat oversteps the bounds of the usual musicological function by supplying us with one spoken line and a scream in the role of the hero’s long-lost mother, although this Hickcockian vignette hardly justifies its quirky inclusion.

The booklet notes are comprehensive and informative, and the provision of the text both spoken and sung is valuable (and sometimes needed). I am puzzled by the mention by Nicholas Temperley of the quintet “Lost, and in a dream” being reminiscent of Beethoven’s Fidelio; Temperley cites parallels with “Er sterbe!” but surely the texture is closer to that of “Mir ist so wunderbar”. And equally surely the whole structure of the number must have influenced Sullivan a decade later when he wrote “A nice dilemma” for Trial by Jury. In fact this quintet is one of the musical highlights of the score.

Temperley heads his booklet note “reviving a masterpiece” and, even if Raymond and Agnes is not quite that, it certainly merits resurrection. Richard Bonynge gets nearer to the point with his comment that “perhaps Loder’s melodic inspiration is a mite less than that of Wallace and Balfe, but his sense of shape and drama is first rate.” He also compliments “singers of true musicality and intelligence who created the work with great seriousness,” and rightly so. Mark Milhofer encompasses the range of his part with a sense of effortless ease, and Majella Cullagh (who also distinguished herself in Bonynge’s set of The Bohemian Girl) is similarly excellent. Both the principal lower voices, Andrew Greenan and Quentin Hayes, have some slight difficulty with the extreme range of their roles, but their dramatic commitment is palpable. Carolyn Fisher, a sort of prototype for Mad Margaret in Sullivan’s Ruddigore, could perhaps bring a sense of greater gravity to her ‘legendary ballad’ [CD1, track 4] but she avoids any sense of plumminess, and Alessandro Fisher in the character tenor role avoids the temptation to ‘send up’ his innate cowardice. Both chorus and orchestra are excellent. The editor accepts that some small cuts were necessary to bring the score within reasonable bounds; without a score, I am not able to comment on these, but accept with gratitude what we are vouchsafed here. Obviously we are unlikely to get another recording anytime soon, so any listeners with the slightest interest in British opera during the nineteenth century should not hesitate to snap up this offering while it remains available; recordings of this repertoire do not tend to survive for long in the catalogue. After their excellent espousal of Ethel Smyth’s The boatswain’s mate last year, our renewed thanks are due to Retrospect Opera for this further expansion of our horizons. Their forthcoming plans look equally enticing, but might I ask them to look further (in due course) into the field of British operas of the first half of the twentieth century – Boughton, Stanford, Holbrooke and even Holst – where there a whole raft of interesting works which have been almost or totally neglected?

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: John France




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