George Macfarren (1813-1887)
The Soldier’s Legacy: An Opera da Camera in Two Acts (1864)
Lotty: Rachel Spears (soprano)
Widow Wantley: Gaynor Keeble (mezzo-soprano)
Jack Weatherall: Joseph Doody (tenor)
Christopher Caracole: Quentin Hayes (baritone)
Jonathan Fisher (piano), Edward Dean (harmonium)
rec. 2021, St Thomas Church, Stockport, UK
English sung text and notes in English.
Retrospect Opera RO009 [2 CDs: 111]

Enthusiasts of early Victorian music will have encountered George Macfarren’s Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7 recorded in 1997 (cpo 999 433-2). Jonathan Woolf in his recent review – link at the bottom – laments the fact that what seemed to be the beginning of a promising symphonic cycle was apparently stopped in its tracks. Some listeners may have had the pleasure of hearing Macfarren’s opera Robin Hood (review). His other recorded works include the overtures Chevy Chase (review) and She stoops to Conquer (review).

The Soldier’s Legacy was written at the behest of Mr. and Mrs. German Reed, who had inaugurated a series of Opera da Camera (chamber operas). To what extent the overall project was a success is a matter of debate. Macfarren had already provided for this series a short piece, Jessy Lea. Due to its success, he was commissioned to compose this opera to a libretto by the English dramatist, critic and translator John Oxenford (1812-1877). It was first heard at the Royal Gallery of Illustration, Regent Street, London in October 1864.

The late Nicholas Temperley has offered a context for this opera: Macfarren was “the pioneer of English nationalism” and The Soldier’s Legacy is “his most thoroughgoing nationalist opera”. The Retrospect Opera webpage elaborates: “while his British contemporaries were still, very consciously, seeking out and absorbing influences from Italian, German and French Romantic opera, Macfarren, equally consciously, sought to create a truly English style of opera inspired by folksong.” This trajectory would find fulfilment in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Hugh the Drover and Gustav Holst’s At the Boar’s Head.

The Soldier’s Legacy has a cast of four, with a piano accompaniment. The harmonium adds birdsong – a nice touch. I do not wish to spoil the plot, but the top line story is quite simple. The village of Tutbury, Staffordshire is a real and very attractive location. On the battlefield at Salamanca, Spain, the hero Jack Weatherall has promised his dying friend, Dick Firebrand, that he would look after the man’s child, Charlie. On return to England, he visits the village where he meets the heroine, Lotty. A subplot concerns Widow Wantley, who has set her cap at Christopher Caracole. He in turn is enamoured of Lotty, his ward of court. The happy conclusion results after the confusion of names and gender are sorted out. Everyone lives happily ever after.

Musically, there is nothing to challenge the listener – certainly nothing that Mendelssohn would have blanched at. But one cannot help but think of Gilbert and Sullivan as this highly melodic opera progresses. There are plenty of good tunes, as well as vivacious duets, trios and quartets. And there is much wit, although I guess that some of the humour is of its era. It is good that Respect Opera have included the spoken parts of the libretto, often omitted in recordings.

All four performers sing perfectly. Every word, every syllable is clearly enunciated. Macfarren apparently repudiated Italian coloratura singing, but Rachel Spears gets considerable scope to indulge in vocal gymnastics. I disagree with Jonathan Woolf’s assessment: “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”. Doody gives an excellent, subtle “chamber” performance of Jack Weatherall’s “heroic” part. The deep tones of Gaynor Keeble playing Widow Wantley and the warmth of Quentin Hayes as Christopher Caracole add considerable value to the charm of this opera. The pianist Jonathan Fisher does a magnificent job with the involved accompaniment. Edward Dean plays the harmonium part, emulating birdsong.

There is a detailed study of The Soldier’s Legacy by Stephen Banfield and David Chandler. It comments on the date, place, context and the opera’s reception. There are the usual brief notes about the performers. The booklet contains the full libretto, complete with stage directions. The CD cover features an extract from a coloured engraving of Richard Westall’s Salamanca 22nd July 1812, and the whole painting appears on the rear page of the booklet.

Retrospect Opera is a registered charity whose aim is to “record important British operas and related musical works of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries”. Previous projects have included Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers and The Boatswain’s Mate, Charles Dibdin’s The Wags, and Edward Loder’s Raymond and Agnes. Charles Villiers Stanford’s Shamus O’Brien is being recorded now, in February 2023. I look forward eagerly to hearing this production.

John France

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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