macfarren soldier retrospect

George Alexander Macfarren (1813-1887)
The Soldier’s Legacy, an Opera da Camera in two acts (1864)
Rachel Speirs (soprano) – Lotty
Gaynor Keeble (mezzo) – Widow Wantley
Joseph Doody (tenor) – Jack Weatherall
Quentin Hayes (baritone) – Christopher Caracole
Jonathan Fisher (piano), Edward Dean (harmonium)
rec. 2021, St Thomas’ Church, Stockport, UK
Libretto in English included

Macfarrren hasn’t been forgotten exactly but he has certainly not fared as consistently well on disc as McCunn and Mackenzie, to limit things just to the fraternity of British Macs. One might have thought that CPO’s coupling of the fourth and seventh symphonies two decades ago would have led to a complete cycle on disc but so far as I’m aware that project petered out. There are vocal and chamber works available. In recent years it’s his opera Robin Hood that has stood out, not least because of its visibility on Naxos (review ~ review ~ review) but that was released over a decade ago and the cause of mid-nineteenth century British opera hasn’t been served any further, at least not in the case of Macfarren.

Until now, that is, and this recording of Macfarren’s ‘chamber opera’ The Soldier’s Legacy of 1864. Nicholas Temperley, the musicologist most versed in the works of Macfarren, considered it ‘his most throughgoing nationalist opera’ and it’s clear that the composer – it’s hardly his fault that he was born in the same year as Wagner and Verdi – sought the English Pastoral as his subject material, not dragons or murder. Both in subject matter and casting – four singers and a pianist – it’s, in effect, a ballad opera, or a rural opera, or a romantic comedy, designed for the very small-scale Royal Gallery of Illustration in London. In fact, it could just be argued – though I won’t necessarily try to argue it myself – that it’s really not an opera at all, certainly not a conventional one, rather more a compromise between balladry and comedy designed for a specific location. 

The Soldier’s Legacy is set in Tutbury in Staffordshire (the singers don’t attempt any accent but sing in RP), selected as it’s a quintessential British town. The work is actually an adaptation of a French ‘comédie-vaudeville’ called Martial le case-coeur (1851) by the dramatist Mélesville, in reality, Baron Anne-Honoré-Joseph Duveyrier. Macfarren worked on the piece with his friend and librettist John Oxenford. The plot is par for the course and concerns a soldier returning from the wars charged with fulfilling a promise made to his dying friend. Oxenford’s libretto rhymes in different schemes, which keeps one alert, and has moments of real wit, pithy and knowing when need be, frolicsome at other times. Macfarren’s ballad-inspired music is full of brio and generosity. There is the usual complement of ballad songs, duets, trios and one quartet, and the central characters are sharply characterised. The character of Lotty spends some of her time engaging in coloratura feats presumably in emulation, or tacit derision, of Italian models, though we are very often told that Macfarren’s nationalism precluded such interpolations. In any case, Lotty’s ‘bird’ aria, when she addresses her feathered friend, is something of a virtuoso feat in this respect, the bird represented by the harmonium, the only other accompanying instrument in the work, other than the piano. 

The recitatives are well taken, and each aria, duet or ensemble flows naturally. The ‘spite’ aria in Act II, called ‘Something I’ll do’ was apparently encored during the first run but elsewhere there are technical demands made on the performers beyond a normal ballad work. In some respects, it prefigures G & S most obviously in the quartet ‘All attention…’, a remarkably fine piece of invention and execution, though running it close is the patter song ‘Have a care’.    

Certainly, the movement from spoken to sung texts is smoother here than in Robin Hood where the elision from full orchestral backing to spoken text can be jarringly abrupt. Here the movement is from a small ensemble of singers, sometimes just one or two, and the piano, of course.   

Whatever it is, and however it’s defined, there are certainly links between The Soldier’s Legacy and Gilbert and Sullivan in the legacy of tuneful wit, wordsmithery, sophistication of conception and the close working relationship of composer and librettist. And there is also a link to Vaughan Williams’ Hugh the Drover of which work VW wrote that he hoped ‘the whole thing might be folk-song-y in character, with a certain amount of real ballad stuff thrown in’. Both works, incidentally, were set during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and VW chose a Cotswold town (Northleach was the model) in much the same way, and for the same reason, that Macfarren chose a Staffordshire one. This doesn’t mean that Macfarren’s work was a direct precursor of VW’s. I doubt VW had come across it. Likely as not he was influenced by hearing Strauss’s Feuersnot. Rather, it mined similar themes and tropes and even settings which explore the strain of nostalgic balladry in British music that ran throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The four singers do well by their roles. The fact that theirs aren’t ‘starry’ voices gives them a more down-to-earth perspective. Perhaps it would have been nice to have had a Tudor Davies (who recorded Hugh the Drover in 1924) for tenor, something more clarion than Joseph Doody can quite provide, but I’m certainly not going to complain. Soprano Rachel Speirs meets her coloratura challenges head-on. Jonathan Fisher at the piano carries the duties of evoking ballad love and stormy weather alike and proves quite up to the demands, and Edward Dean’s harmonium is put to good use in the avian scenes.  

This album is dedicated to Nicholas Temperley, who died in 2020, and I am sure he would have approved of the production, performance, and industry that has seen it through to publication. There’s a fine booklet with full libretto and two scholarly essays, from Stephen Banfield and David Chandler. Whatever you call The Soldier’s Legacy, it’s in safe hands here.

Jonathan Woolf 

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