An opera set on an island in more ways than one!
Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoe was acclaimed as a great success on its premiere at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1867, but then seemed to run out of steam fairly quickly. The piece only ran for 32 performances, and after this did not enjoy any outings beyond Vienna and Brussels the following year. Various adaptations appeared in the early 20th century, but the first modern professional staging did not occur until 1973, although it has received a few more airings in recent years.
Offenbach and his librettists Eugène Cormon and Hector-Jonathan Crémieux took the theme from Daniel Defoe’s eponymous 1719 novel, although writer and historian Andrew Lamb believes that the action “owes as much to the British pantomime version of Defoe as to the novel”. This may account in part for its swift decline in popularity because, as musicologist Winton Dean suggested, “Offenbach clearly could not decide whether he was writing opéra comique, which aims at genuine, if stylised, sentiment and character, or operetta, which makes no such claim”. This very same fact, however, may explain why West Green House Opera’s concert performance worked so well, for alongside genuinely moving moments there was a huge dose of comedy that could be thoroughly enjoyed.
West Green House strives to include a concert presentation of an operatic rarity in every season, alongside its two main productions and other events. There could have been no more appropriate setting for this particular opera since the majority of the action takes place on an island, and the venue’s stage is built out from one as the audience watches from the edge of the surrounding lake. Although cast members carried scores, most ensured that they delivered a key aria or two from memory, and it soon became easy to forget that they were being used at all.
The fact that this was a concert performance also gave it one advantage over a full production. Robinson Crusoe is the type of opera that, if it is to be fully staged, needs to be executed exceptionally slickly. If the necessary level of smoothness is achieved, however, then we are inclined to become caught up in the energy of the performance as a whole so that the music almost feels incidental. By being able to concentrate on the wonderful harmonies, and the moments of swift vocal interactions between the characters, it became easy to appreciate the sheer brilliance of the music, and the way in which it generates all of the requisite dynamism in its own right.
The experience felt extremely multifaceted as Act I revealed a highly moving heart to heart between Robinson Crusoe and his fiancée Edwige concerning his plans to leave her for adventure. While she initially pleads with him to stay in the most impassioned way imaginable, she ultimately realises she cannot be the one to stop him fulfilling his dreams and sends him out into the world rather as Brünnhilde sends Siegfried in the Prologue to Götterdämmerung. In a different vein, when Robinson finally discovers her again on the island several years later, the moment in which he asks if his eyes have tricked him has musical ‘echoes’ of The Pirates of Penzance, written twelve years later, when Frederick reprimands Ruth for having deceived him.
“…alongside genuinely moving moments there was a huge dose of comedy that could be thoroughly enjoyed”
There is broad comedy too as the cook on the island, Jim Cocks, supposedly describes the secret to his culinary success in the unusual and highly entertaining trio ‘Je prends un vase de terre’. More subtle is the initially moving duet ‘O mon Toby, mon doux ami’, in which the servant characters Toby and Suzanne agree they would rather die together, even though there is the opportunity for one of them to be saved. However, as it continues, each starts to argue that they would be performing the selfless act by letting the other die while they lived, so that the duet follows the same descent into antagonism as ‘Friendship’ in Anything Goes. In Vert-Vert Offenbach included an aria in which a character provides a lesson on the history of dance. There is a similarly ‘educational’ item here as Friday is taught all of the different types of love, with the Ancient Greeks having had seven words for what we commonly lump together with one.
The opera was sung in a highly skilful English translation by David Parry, who also conducted the excellent Orpheus Sinfonia. Because the venue is outside, miking was necessary, but the amplification was extremely sensitive and had its own advantages. It meant that on his first appearance Robinson could begin singing offstage on the bridge that crosses to the island, and that Friday could also be heard before the character was seen. One particularly memorable moment came towards the end of Act I when four soloists were at the front of the stage and yet the beautiful sound the audience heard did not initially come from their mouths at all, but from a seemingly otherworldly realm.
Although this was described as a concert performance, it did have a director, Thomas Guthrie, who pitched the presentation perfectly. When the Cannibals appeared, the ‘oafish’ feel that the performers conveyed, coupled with a little movement and dancing, captured exactly the right effect. Similarly, watching the Mutineers fall ‘kicking and screaming’ to the ground at the end rounded off the action well. Costumes and a few props such as a palm tree were introduced, courtesy of designer Charlina Lucas, while the evening was lit to maximum effect by Sarah Bath.
The evening was also made by the strength of the performances with Robert Murray in the title role displaying an expansive and commanding tenor, and Lucy Hall as Edwige revealing some extremely impassioned and heartfelt singing. With her accomplished mezzo-soprano, Martha Jones was a highly sensitive and loyal Friday, while Stephanie Hershaw and Joseph Doody interacted well as the servant characters Suzanne and Toby. There was excellent support from Joanna Harries as Lady Deborah Crusoe, and Ruairi Bowen who pressed the right comedic buttons as Jim Cocks. Trevor Eliot Bowes, with his strong and secure bass, also excelled as Sir William Crusoe at the family home in Bristol, and in several smaller roles on the island.
All this begs the question of whether Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoe is really a slight work that this presentation lifted to another level, or a masterpiece that it only required a performance of this quality to reveal as such. The answer may lie somewhere in the middle, and it may not ultimately matter because what counts is the result on this occasion, which was a first rate evening at West Green House Opera.