Offenbach at 200

Once upon a time, far too many years ago, there was a boy. He was eleven years old, and had just started high school. There, he met a music teacher – one of those teachers destined to inspire many of the pupils who came into contact with him. A whole new world of classical music suddenly opened up to the boy and he was eager to explore it.

He didn’t hear classical music at home, and so the boy went to the local library and started borrowing records from their collection. But he was a novice. He had no idea what he “should” be listening to, what music was part of the “canon” and what music was obscure. So, he borrowed “Attila” by Verdi, with no idea that most people had never heard of it and would have probably directed him to “Rigoletto” or “La Traviata” instead. He borrowed Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony because he got it mixed up with Beethoven’s. But his naivety regarding the music he was eager to explore meant he had no bias. No-one had told him what was good, or what was bad, what was serious, what was important, or what was trivial.

Someone else had inspired the boy as well. When he had been younger, around seven, he had met an elderly lady who lived close by and they had become friends. Each week, he would go there and they would play board games or card games, maybe watch a classic film on the TV, drink lots of tea, and eat lots of cake. Lots. And they would read books together. One of those books, about the same time the boy was expanding his musical horizons, was “Robinson Crusoe.”

One day, he was in the library, looking for a new musical work to fall in love with, and there on the shelf he spotted a boxed set of records, with a yellow cover and a title emblazoned across it: “Robinson Crusoe” by Jacques Offenbach. He had no idea that there had been an opera made out of the story – and had even less idea that most other people were unaware of it, too. He had no prior knowledge of Offenbach, either. He borrowed the records, went home with them tucked under his arm, and fell in love.

Just as with the music teacher and the elderly neighbour (who the boy continued to visit several times a week for fifteen years until she passed away, and he still misses her more than could be imagined), there was an instant connection. Sometimes these things cannot be explained. Not only was there the music on the records in that boxed set, but also the story in the booklet that came with it, about how neglected the work had been over the years, how it had been carefully reconstructed for the recording, and the detective work that had gone into making that happen. It was a very romantic story for a twelve-year-old to come across.

There might have been notices on many of his records that “home taping is killing music,” but he made a copy of “Robinson Crusoe” all the same, and he borrowed it from the library as many times as he could. In fact, he borrowed it so many times that, after several years, the library agreed to sell the set to him. After all, nobody else could take it out because he had it all the time. A few weeks later, a huge fire destroyed the library, and the boy’s beloved “Robinson Crusoe” would have been lost forever had he not now owned it.

The finale of Act II of Robinson Crusoe. Just sublime from the 2:00 mark

That was a long time ago, and the boy grew up and became me. I spent my teens trying to find more Offenbach, although there wasn’t much to find on the shelves of the record shops here in Norwich. I managed to find the Nicolai Gedda recording of “The Tales of Hoffmann,” and on my first or second visit to London (memory gets foggy now) I went into the giant HMV on Oxford Street (RIP) and found the Sadler’s Wells version of “Orpheus in the Underworld” from the 1960s. Then there was the Ofra Harnoy recording of the cello concerto (long before it was pieced back together into a work twice the length of that recording) bought on cassette tape, and a couple of albums of overtures found in a much-missed second-hand classical and jazz music shop called Ives Records – where I spent much of my misspent youth and spent even more of my pocket money.

As time went on, I started earnestly collecting all kinds of classical music – and other genres too, particularly jazz – and now I’m a middle-aged man with a collection of CDs that runs into the thousands. But if you don’t drink or smoke, what are you going to do with your money?! I have fallen in love with other composers or other works over the years, but no classical music has given me the joy that Offenbach has. Offenbach: the one who has spent much of the last two centuries being ridiculed or classed as too lightweight, has brightened up my often rather depressing life more than he could possibly imagine.

This week, on June 20th, my beloved Jacques will be celebrating his 200th birthday. And somewhat unsurprisingly, there have been a fair few releases on CD to celebrate the anniversary. He is loved after all. There have been new discs of relatively obscure arias, some famous and not so famous overtures, three discs of piano music, an album of cello music, and a rather scrumptious thirty disc set from Warner collecting together classic recordings of the best-known works with a few lesser-known ones thrown in for good measure. The English National Opera are performing “Orpheus in the Underworld” in the autumn and, best of all, I finally got to see my beloved “Robinson Crusoe” performed at the Royal College of Music in a wonderful production that was well worth that twenty-five year wait. Sadly, the BBC Proms have decided to ignore the anniversary, which seems somewhat bizarre – and unforgivable. Perhaps nobody told them.

Nicolai Gedda sings “Il était une fois à la cour d’Eisenach”

Offenbach has managed to put a smile on my face during some very dark times, and no doubt will continue to do so in the coming years. It is just a pity that people still seem less than willing to investigate his remarkable legacy – and because of what? A reputation? Sheer musical snobbery? I fear it’s the latter, I really do. There is nothing so utterly pointless as musical snobbery. I despise it more and more as the years pass. There is nothing wrong with enjoying music, letting it cheer you, letting it thrill you, or invigorate you, or letting it make you laugh.

So, in order to celebrate Offenbach’s birthday, why not get hold of the sparkling, vibrant new recording of the cello concerto by Edgar Moreau? It’s quite something. Or how about the delicious album of soprano arias from operas well-known and obscure by Jodie Devos? If you want to get even more obscure, try the Brilliant Classics album of songs by Offenbach entitled “Melodies” – it’s more interesting than the title!

Or perhaps you could treat yourself to that Sadler’s Wells version of Orpheus I bought in London many years ago, or grab yourself “The Tales of Hoffmann” – and then read the detective story about how that opera’s been reconstructed. Offenbach’s operas seems to have so many detective stories attached to them. Tales of researchers travelling the globe and sifting through archives to put all the pieces of his operas back together again. Is that actually why all three of the non-fiction books I have written are, in essence, works of detection? Perhaps that romanticised view of putting “Robinson Crusoe” back together that I read when I was twelve actually influenced my own research in adult life without me realising it.

And of course, maybe – just maybe – you could discover for yourself “Robinson Crusoe,” still available (on CD now) from the Opera Rara label.

The last few minutes of Offenbach’s Cello Concerto.

I would say at this point, let’s “raise a glass” to the wonderful Offenbach on his 200th birthday on Thursday, but I don’t drink. In all honesty, I doubt Offenbach would have approved of me raising a cup of tea to celebrate his bicentennial, but it will have to do. Perhaps he’ll see the discs of his work on my shelves, or hear them in my CD player and forgive me. I hope so.

So, happy birthday, Jacques. And thank you.

Royal College of Music: Robinson Crusoe (Review)

NB. The Royal College of Music are presenting this Offenbach opera with alternating casts. This review refers to the performance of Friday March 15, 2019.

Sometimes we wait for so long for something to happen that, when it does, we approach it with trepidation. I fell in love with Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoe about thirty or so years ago when I was about fourteen. I borrowed the Opera Rara recording from my local library and fell in love with it. I would like to put into words why this happened, but sometimes it it simply is not possible. Things happen. The recording (the only recording, as it happens) was out of print at the time, and this was long before being able to track such things down with eBay, and so I eventually borrowed the set so many times from the library that they told me to keep it. The next week, the library burned down. Life can be strange.

Sadly, Robinson Crusoe is performed rarely, but that meant that travelling to see the Royal College of Music production in Offenbach’s 200th birthday year was a must, despite the problems that I have with travelling these days. The biggest question was whether my beloved Crusoe would be what I hoped for in a fully-staged live performance. I knew in advance that Don White’s superb English version was being used, which was a good sign. I needn’t have worried.

Crusoe sits in a rather unique place within Offenbach’s works. Most of Offenbach’s operettas are a series of short numbers of two or three minutes linked by often rather extended sequences of dialogue (which can be very tiresome on recordings). At the other end of the scale are the “grand” operas The Tales of Hoffmann and Die Rheinnixen.   Crusoe sits somewhere in between – the couplets, can-cans and waltzes of the operettas are all present and correct (along with farcical comedy at times), but there are other moments that are deadly serious, as well as lengthy arias and love duets. Straddling this slightly uncomfortable neither-one-thing-or-another position can no doubt be difficult, but the RCM handled it with ease – and the young voices are a huge benefit in this regard.

The opening act takes place in the sitting room of the Crusoe’s home, with Robinson planning to run away to sea. The current production had the rather novel idea of having the sitting room as a room-sized box in the centre of the stage. There were pros and cons with this – it conveys to the audience the way that Robinson feels confined at home, but the confined space does feel a little like an over-used gimmick (clever though it is) by the end of the first act. From a musical point, the audience is put at ease with a fine rendition of the overture (which never seems to crop up on Offenbach Overture CDs), before the conservative Crusoe family is revealed as Sir William reads from the Bible.

I assumed at the beginning of the evening as the vocals began that I would be writing that Timothy Edlin’s performance as Sir William would be one of the highlights of the evening, but it actually set the standard for the rest of the evening with fine performances from all, and everyone fitted the roles extremely well. This first musical section soon tells us that Crusoe is not a light and fluffy operetta – around twenty minutes of singing take place before there is any spoken dialogue. Holly-Marie Bingham was superb as the port-swigging Lady Crusoe, and Judith Lozano sings Edwige’s aria “I’m Not In Love” really quite beautifully (again, another part of the opera that should be well-known, a lovely piece of music). Katy Thomson is great fun as Suzanne the maid who happily tells us of the revenge she has taken in the past to men who have left her (with some surreal burlesque thrown in!), and Guy Elliott (or Benedict Cumberbatch, I’m not sure which) has great fun with his comic song that lightens the mood towards the end of the act.

Robinson Crusoe was cut heavily around the time it was first performed in 1867, but most of the lost music was restored during the 1970s for the Opera Rara recordings and most subsequent performances. Unless I was mistaken, there were a couple of cuts made to the restored score in the first act – the first being the second verse of the rather tedious “Togetherness” song (not a great loss, in all honesty), but the second was (unless I was mistaken) a small part of the love duet between Robinson and Edwige, which made the end of the first section end rather abruptly – and, in all honesty, if we’re going to sit there for well over three hours, cutting two minutes of music ain’t going to make much difference!

The second act is in two scenes, the first being totally taken up by Glen Cunningham’s Robinson and Lauren Joyanne Morris’s take on Man Friday. Cunningham really comes into his own here – alone on the stage for the first six minutes or so, delivering the opening aria of the act, and changing character from the rather naive young man of the opening act to an almost father-like figure towards Friday, which is all handled extremely well. Robinson’s costume for the island scenes is a little…unusual – rather like a pair of pyjamas that have grown fur, or if you are of a certain age, he does rather start to resemble Bungle from Rainbow with all that facial hair and the fur suit, and I hope for Mr Cunningham’s sake his beard doesn’t take on a life of its own again during the next performance: no performer likes a flapping moustache (been there, done that!).

Rather oddly, seemingly in a nod to political correctness or, as the programme note suggests, “cultural appropriation,” the word “Master” is removed entirely from the opera when Friday is talking to Robinson and is replaced by “Crusoe.” While this may have been done with the best intentions, the opera is set in the 1800s when Friday would have probably called Robinson “Master” – and if they were in a friend relationship instead, surely she would call him by his first name and not his surname (but presumably “Robinson” has too many syllables to fit the music!). Bearing this sensitivity to the word “master” in mind, it then seems doubly odd that Friday, a part generally played by a non-white singer is here played by a caucasian – and played very well, I might add – but given the recent furore over whitewashing (remember West Side Story at the Proms last year), I would think this was more of a sensitive issue than the word “master!” It would be interesting to find out the thinking behind these various decisions – and, of course, 99% of the audience would not be aware of the change to the wording in the libretto.

The first scene of the second act contains some really lovely music, most notably the lengthy duet between Robinson and Friday, but dramatically the scene doesn’t really go anywhere – something that is less noticeable on a recording. Conversely, much happens in the second scene of Act II, and it is probably the highlight of the whole opera (both on CD and on stage). Here we get a chorus of waltzing and can-canning (not at the same time) cannibals, amongst other things. Rhys James Batt is extremely good as Jim Cocks, the Bristolian who ran away to sea ten years earlier but is now the cannibals’ chef! A gifted comedian with great stage presence, he manages to perform both uproariously funny elements of his part with the more serious ones. Toby and Suzanne’s lengthy duet is great fun (and the dancing cannibals is a lovely and unexpected touch), and Juliet Lozano takes on and conquers with panache the stunning waltz song which is the only relatively well-known number from the entire opera (thanks to a recording by Joan Sutherland). Also of note here is the beautiful ensemble number that takes place just prior to the waltz, which starts with just one person singing (Friday) and then Offenbach adds layer upon layer upon layer, showing just how great a composer he could be when he really set his mind to it.

Sadly, he didn’t set his mind to it very much in Act three. On the Opera Rara recording, it is obvious that, musically, it has little of the ambition or, indeed, charm of the first two acts. One could almost picture Offenbach running behind schedule and producing a few numbers overnight to get the score finished (shades of Arthur Sullivan) – and who would put that past him? After what has come before, it is a very disappointing thirty-five minutes or so from the point of view of the score. The arias for Friday and Edwige are forgettable (although well-performed in the new production), and the “bliss” duet is a mix of bland music with a notably inane lyric: “Yes, this must be what bliss is, bliss is what this is.” Surely Don White could have done better than that?!

A number from the restored score gets the chop here – Suzanne’s (not very musically exciting) song about Man Friday causes all kinds of problems for a 2019 audience: “Coloured skin’s not a sin/God made you, Friday too/And in the end that’s all that counts.” Yikes – and that’s one of the more palatable sections of the lyrics of the number! It’s such a memorable number on the CD that I had forgotten it even existed until I just went to check something else (act three doesn’t get played much!). Clearly, the lyrics are outdated and it’s easy to see why this would be cringeworthy/offensive performed today – but it does reiterate that Friday was written as a non-caucasian character!

But there is good news regarding Offenbach’s rather woeful third act. Somehow, the RCM managed to make far more out of it than I ever thought would be possible. Through a mix of hamming it up and even audience participation (the audience had had two intervals by this point and may well have been slightly imbibed, which helped with the latter element), the cast had everyone on side within minutes – helped along by the still-all-too-relevant quartet where Man Friday watches on as the others tell him “there’s no place like England/As you’ll soon begin/to learn when you get there/if they let you in!” Indeed!

In short, for cast, crew, orchestra (just wait for their wonderful rendition of the Entracte to Act II – again, why isn’t it better known), and Offenbach himself, Robinson Crusoe is a triumph. From the glorious duets and arias through to the pantomime of the third act, it was certainly worth the wait of thirty years to finally see a production and I congratulate all involved. It’s all too easy with a piece such as this to not take the serious bits seriously, but that minefield is well-judged.

One really has to wonder why this piece, and Offenbach in general, is so ignored in the UK. Are we really such a bunch of dull serious opera goers that we can’t have a bloody good time while we’re there more than once in a blue moon? We pay enough to go! There really is so much good music within Crusoe (and many other Offenbach works) and it is a shame that there is only the one recording, and it would be nice to hear one in the original French. A DVD/blu-ray release of a performance would be welcome also (I’d certainly pay good money for a copy of this one) – surely we have more than enough Hoffmann’s to keep us happy for a few years? On the plus side, there has been signs that opera companies are becoming more willing to try out forgotten scores on audiences during the last few years. English Touring Opera are presenting Rossini’s Elisabeth I this year, and gave us Donizetti’s The Wild Man of the West Indies a couple of years back. Even the National G&S Company toured with The Sorcerer last year.

My love of Crusoe remains as strong as it always has been. I may be far more cynical now than when I first heard it, but there are so many wonderful moments in the score that it never fails to put a smile on my face – and Suzanne’s line “what’s the use of dreaming dreams when you know they will never, never come true” is so beautiful and comes at us out of nowhere that those bars alone can still bring me to tears.

Offenbach: Robinson Crusoe (opera)


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, back in 1987 or 1988.  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.