In all my blog posts over the last couple of years, I don’t think I have ever written about opera. However, a recent purchase on Ebay has prompted this little effort about a relatively unknown Offenbach work called Robinson Crusoe.
I first came across Robinson Crusoe when I was about thirteen or fourteen. I had been reading the book around that time and had also been investigating the opera shelves in the audio section of my local library. I had no idea when I borrowed the Opera Rara recording for the first time that this was some kind of rarity or obscure work. Still, when I got home and listened to the records, I fell in love. I’m not sure what it was in particular that was so attractive to me – perhaps because it was the accessibility of the music, or the fact it was sung in English, or the fine performances, or the booklet which told me that there was something of a detective story behind the way much of the music had been restored to its rightful place. Whatever it was, the love affair with Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoe has turned out to be life-long. I wasn’t familar with Offenbach’s other works at the time, and so was unaware that Robinson was, as Don White writes, the first time “the songs became arias” and the dialogue that filled so many of his earlier works became recitative. What’s more, most earlier works had numbers that lasted just a couple of minutes, whereas Robinson has arias lasting more than five minutes, and duets lasting more than ten.
I borrowed the LP set so often from the local library that they eventually sold it to me (no-one else had borrowed it in four or five years prior to me), and this unusual decision on their part turned out to be an odd coincidence as the library burned down a few weeks later, and most of the audio library was lost. Now, of course, we have Robinson Crusoe on CD, and the LPs sit on a shelf for much of the time (although I believe in this case the mastering of the LPs was better than the CDs). Still, they remained a treasured possession.
Fast forward to a week or so ago and, browsing through eBay, I find that there was another recording of Robinson Crusoe (see above pic) of the same translation, but recorded “privately” (I think that means bootleg!) in a 1973 live performance (several years before the Opera Rara recording). After a few enquiries, I bought the set, intrigued at what differences there might be between the two recordings. The most obvious difference is the quality of performance – despite featuring many of the same soloists, the 1973 performance is somewhat ragged around the edges in places, and sounds comparatively unrehearsed.
The most intriguing difference, though, is that the 1973 recording doesn’t include the sections that had been cut at various points over the previous hundred years. This gives us a chance to hear how Robinson Crusoe had been heard in previous performances (which were few and far between). The cuts – made by Offenbach in some cases – result in a far less satisfactory work. While the uncut work is long, it is beautifully constructed (particularly acts 1 and 2) with a series of lengthy ensembles and duets that are far more Hoffmann than Orpheus. In comparison, the edited version is choppy, with even some of the numbers that were retained being shortened. Knowing the full version, it’s hard to imagine the piece without the With a Kiss duet, and heartbreaking to hear that audiences were deprived of about 50% of the Robinson/Edwige and Robinson/Friday duets in acts 1 and 2 respectively. Those of us that know Robinson Crusoe think highly of it, but I wonder if my view of it would be the same if the Opera Rara recording had not involved the restoration of the lost sections and I had been confronted with the uneven work that the edited version is/was.
Robinson Crusoe remains one of Offenbach’s greatest and yet most neglected works – rarely performed and, often, still edited heavily when it is. The first two acts contain music that equals much of that in The Tales of Hoffmann, although it has to be said that the third act does tend to let the side down a little bit in that regard. Hoffmann has always been, to me at least, a more worthwhile (and certainly more entertaining) effort than Die Rheinnixen. We can only hope that, at some point in the near future, a major new production will be mounted – and that it retains all of the lost music found during the treasure-hunt prior to the Opera Rara recording and revival in the late 1970s.