Offenbach: Robinson Crusoe (opera)

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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.

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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.

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Show Boat (San Francisco Opera) Review

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The problem with the San Francisco Opera Show Boat is that it is performed by an opera company.  Currently being screened in cinemas in the UK, this stage production is a harmless way of spending two and a half hours, but is otherwise something of a mess – especially to those of us who know the show well.

The score of Show Boat was restored a few decades ago to that which was presented on Broadway in 1927, with the songs that had been cut since then restored to their rightful place.  But not in this production.  Gone were numbers such as I Might Fall Back on You, In Dahomey, and I Would Like to Play a Lover’s Part.   Why?  No idea.  It’s not like the San Francisco production was of Wagnerian length – and, even if it was, why would that matter?

It gets even odder in the second half where not only are songs missing, but those that remain are sung by different characters and the narrative changed!  Dance the Night Away was sung by Kim on the Cotton Blossom in the 1928 version of the show (it was a replacement for a different song sung by the same character in the same scene in the 1927 original), but was sung by her mother, Magnolia, in the current production – and she sings it on Broadway in a completely new scene (pictured above).

One has to wonder why a respected opera company would tackle a classic piece of American theatre that has been around for nearly ninety years and think it new better than Kern, Hammerstein and Ziegfeld and begin to rewrite it.  Would they do the same with La Traviata?  I don’t think so.   And the changes didn’t stop there.  Dialogue was also altered for no apparent reason, as were lyrics.

The opening chorus originally opened with the line “niggers all work on the Mississippi,” but here it was changed to “coloured folks work on the Mississippi.”  This is political correctness gone mad.  The show is partly about racism for God’s sake – cutting out the racist language that the show is criticising is just completely insane.   It’s like making a film about homophobia and cutting out all the derogatory language that is part of that.   What’s even more mad is that the word “nigger” was retained during the dialogue – so why edit it out of the opening chorus?  The whole point of that opening line of the show is that it is hard-hitting – it told Broadway audiences in 1927 that this was no ordinary, light-hearted show.

But, all these changes aside, the whole thing completely fails as decent entertainment because it is performed by an opera company.  It’s like hearing Pavarotti sing Frank Sinatra.  It doesn’t work.  Yes, it’s fine for some characters – Magnolia and Ravenal can be sung with an opera voice and the show loses nothing.  But Julie ends up as a drunk in a bar singing torch songs – and sounds like Kiri te Kanawa when she should be sounding more like Billie Holiday.  It means the whole thing doesn’t make sense for the story and the characters become unbelievable.  Talking of unbelievable, Magnolia is meant to be 16 when the show starts, and yet is played by Heidi Stober who, according to my calculations, is nearer forty.   Yes, in opera we’re used to this kind of casting – but this isn’t opera, it’s theatre.  Sadly those behind the production failed to realise this.

Messing with the order of songs, cutting numbers and changing the narrative would be fine for viewers who don’t know the show well as they wouldn’t realise what had changed or been excised. However, when you couple this with a production that fatally casts the wrong kind of singers it’s a step too far.  And all of this (complete with appalling over-acting at times) is magnified when you then watch it on a big screen in a cinema.    There were some very good episodes, most notably a powerful rendition of the miscegenation scene which still moves an audience ninety years after it was written, but for the most part this was a fatally flawed production of a show that doesn’t get revived nearly often enough to start with.