Tuesday 28 August 2018

A real discovery: Loder's English romantic opera Raymond and Agnes

Edward Loder: Raymond and Agnes - Retrospect Opera
Edward Loder Raymond and Agnes; Mark Milhofer, Majella Cullagh, Andrew Greenan, Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Richard Bonynge; Retrospect OPera Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 August 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Despite a poor libretto, this mid-19th-century English opera reveals itself to be surprisingly complex in this sympathetic new recording conducted by Richard Bonynge

In the 19th century, the British Isles were not quite as devoid of music as it can seem at first. In the opera field, there is a vein of lyric opera, which develops out of the tradition of ballad opera. Best known amongst these are the operas by William Wallace and Michael Balfe. To these must be added those of Edward Loder. His opera Raymond and Agnes has had some revival in the 20th and 21st centuries but, perhaps, lacking the big hit number it has failed to even cling to the edge of the repertoire in the way that Wallace's Maritana and Balfe's The Bohemian Girl have.

This new recording of Edward Loder's Raymond and Agnes is based on an admirable new edition of the score by Valerie Langfield and this has now been recorded by Retrospect Opera with Richard Bonynge conducting a cast including Majella Cullagh, Mark Milhofer, Carolyn Dobbin, Andrew Greenan and Quentin Hayes with the Retrospect Opera Chorus and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia.

Loder trained in Frankfurt with Ferdinand Ries (friend, pupil and secretary of Beethoven), and eventually, he became music director at the Manchester Theatre Royal. His output included operas, ballad operas, ballets and more. Raymond and Agnes was premiered in 1855 and revived in 1858. It is now the most highly regarded of his operas though during his lifetime his earlier opera, The Night Dancers was more successful.

To put the opera in context, Donizetti's last operas premiered in 1843, Verdi's La traviata was premiered in 1853. In England Balfe's The Bohemian Girl premiered in 1843 and Balfe would continue writing operas for Covent Garden through to the 1860s, William Wallace's Maritana premiered in 1845, Gilbert and Sullivan's Trial by Jury premiered in 1875.

Loder's set a libretto by Edward Fitzball (a popular playwright who specilaised in melodrama and who wrote the librettos for Wallace's Maritana and Lurline), and the opera mixes set pieces, recitative and spoken dialogue. One of the problems of the work is immediately apparent, the dialogue is complete fustian. In fact, it has been discreetly simplified for the recording but frankly, the work needs a new version of the text which removes the arcane language. The plot is complex, Raymond is seeking to free his beloved Agnes from the clutches of her guardian, the Baron of Lindenberg. But the Baron is set upon marrying Agnes. The Baron has, in the past, masqueraded as a bandit leader, Inigo, and as a result, his and Raymond's pasts are inextricably linked with that of the current bandit leader Antonio. The results are great fun, in the manner of a rip-roaring yarn rather than a deep an meaningful exploration of the human soul. There is a prophecy, a ghostly nun, a team of bandits, a mysterious mute woman and a baron who is far more than a cardboard baddie, what more can you want.

Loder's music is surprisingly complex and finely written. His vocal lines tend to the elaborate, and he is very fond of complex ensembles, this is far more than a ballad opera and when the piece was performed in Cambridge in 1966, the critics were surprised at the sheer quality of the music.

The admirable CD booklet discusses the work's influences, with Matthew Lewis's novels, The Monk and The Castle Spectre, and Weber's Der Freischutz is in the mix too. What the booklet essays do not mention is another opera, not an influence but a significant factor in modern appreciation of Loder's opera. Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore, which premiered in 1887, clearly had operas like Raymond and Agnes in mind as one of the things to be sent up, and Loder's Baron of Lindenberg seems a clear ancestor of Sir Despard Murgatroyd. And frankly, a lot of Loder's writing seems to have links to Sullivan's lyric style. In a word, it is difficult to take the opera seriously at first, the combination of the Ruddigore-esque elements with the fustian language need to be got over.

But there is plenty to enjoy in the music if you can take it on its own terms. Loder's vocal writing can be complex, the opera was obviously written for real singers rather than singing actors. And it is far from a ballad opera, the musical elements are large scale and often drive the plot forward. A strong duet for Raymond and the Baron in Act Two reveal much new information and presents the Baron as a surprisingly complex character. And, as I have mentioned, Loder's use of the ensemble is striking and there is much to enjoy.

As Raymond, Mark Milhofer sings with a lovely fluidity and nice sense of line which is very necessary in this music. There is charm too, and he makes Raymond seem interesting and not the usual drip. As his beloved Agnes, Majella Cullagh is on fine form technically in the elaborations in Agnes' vocal lines, unfortunately, Cullagh's voice often seems rather occluded so that the technical strength is not always complimented with a clear tone. But she makes Agnes, who is admittedly a rather passive character, more interesting that she might otherwise be.

Andrew Greenan has great fun as the Baron, with a wicked past and in the present compelled to marry Agnes against her will because of a prophecy relating to the ghost of the Prioress. It is all terrifically mad stuff, but Greenan sings with a lovely swagger and a nice musicality, not a hint of bluster here.

The smaller parts are all admirably cast, and create a very strong ensemble indeed. Carolyn Dobbin as Madelina, Agnes's foster-sister, takes fine advantage of her solo moments, whilst Alessandro Fisher is full of charm as Raymond's valet.  Quentin Hayes makes what he can of the small but crucial role of Antoni the bandit.

Richard Bonynge conducts the Royal Ballet Sinfonia with real sympathy, bringing out the melodic charm of the music and engaging us from beginning to end.

It is fatally easy to make fun of Raymond and Agnes, but imagine that a company like Opera Rara recorded Raimondo e Agnese by a little known Italian composer. The plot would come in for comment, after all, there are plenty of Donizetti operas with improbable plots and bad dialogue, but we would move on and enjoy the music. We need to do that with Raymond and Agnes, this recording highlights the relative sophistication of Loder's writing. Granted it does not always stand up to comparison with what Verdi was doing in Italy, but then few Italian composers of the period do either.

The opera is part of the same romantic movement as Lewis' The Monk, and Loder himself was concerned to write operas which were comparable to the German romantic operas of Weber and Marschner with their Wolf's Glen and Vampires. We need to understand this context and be sympathetic. This new recording should bring the opera a lot of new followers, and hopefully, stimulate interest.

Edward Loder (1809-1865) - Raymond and Agnes
Raymond - Mark Milhofer
Agnes - Majella Cullagh
The Baron of Lindenberg - Andrew Greenan
Madelina - Carolyn Dobbin
Antoni - Quentin Hayes
Theodore - Alessandro Fisher
Francesco - Alexandr Robin Baker
Landlord - Timothy Langston
Antoni's sons - Phil Wilcox, David Horton
Ravella - Valerie Langfield
Retrospect Opera Chorus
Royal Ballet Sinfonia
Richard Bonynge (conductor)
Recorded 16-19 October 2017 at St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
RETROSPECT OPERA RO005 2CDs [72.44, 75.52]
Available from Amazon.

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