Notes and Editorial Reviews
There simply is no competition for this release as a unique document of a seminal moment in American musical history, and it is remarkably well realized.
Maybe it was only a matter of time before the enterprising archaeologists at the Ohio Light Opera turned the clock back to uncover Reginald De Koven (1859–1920), the first thoroughly successful, homegrown force in American musical theater, and his greatest success, the 1891 three-act operetta Robin Hood. This recording of the complete staging, from the 2004 season, is one of their finest and most valuable reclamation efforts yet, with its musical values putting a ringing seal upon its obvious archaeological value.
Though born in Connecticut, De Koven
spent his formative years studying and learning his craft in Europe, in that respect like his colleague Victor Herbert, who was also born in 1859 and who also studied at the conservatory in Stuttgart at about the same time. Similarly, he spent some time in Vienna studying that city’s operetta scene with one of its leading lights (Richard Genée, in De Koven’s case), which explains the prevalence of waltz elements in his American scores, the elaborate skill of his multimovement finales, and his preference for the three-act framework favored by Strauss and Millöcker rather than the two-act structure usual with the Savoyards. Robin Hood was the third of De Koven’s 30 operettas and light comic operas, most of which were composed in collaboration with the prolific Harry B. Smith, who also provided librettos for several Victor Herbert operettas.
De Koven and Smith’s particular twist on the Robin Hood story is to shoehorn the familiar cast of characters and certain rough references to the legend into the conventions of comic opera, with its disguises, romantic confusions, and buffoonery. Robert of Locksley is here driven into his life of crime because the Sheriff of Nottingham cheats him out of his inheritance in order to pass it on to his own favorite, Sir Guy of Gisborne. Of course, Sir Guy is as comically cowardly as Robin is brave, so when it is declared that the promised hand of Lady Marian Fitzwater will transfer to Guy along with the fortune, the basic plot complications are set in motion.
Meanwhile, the Sheriff, who spouts a constant stream of grim puns about hanging, declares his own intention not only to capture the outlaw Robin Hood but to marry the maid Annabel, whose prior betrothal to one of the Merry Men, Allan-a-Dale, jostles the other main romantic couple. This plot and the plot to unite Guy and Marian are foiled through the appearance of Dame Durden, who has evidently been previously betrothed to the Sheriff. While there are archery contests, ambushes, and Merry Men disguised as monks, it is clear that the Sheriff is more buffoon than villain, and that true love, rather than violence or politics, will unravel the confusion of the principals. The “olde English” setting of the story affords De Koven ample opportunity to explore his strengths, as he crafts tunes of folk-like simplicity, a string of charming set pieces, and a plethora of lilting 6/8 numbers. The debts to Arthur Sullivan are rife, particularly in the choruses and mock madrigals of the first act. The robust, almost Falstaffian vocal characterization of the Sheriff by Frederick Reeder will also put one in mind of those classic comic basses from D’Oyly Carte productions of yore. Yet, many other numbers suggest an explicitly American, 1890s parlor-song style. It is from the amalgamation of these aspects with markedly Viennese waltzes that De Koven’s lyric voice is shaped.
The recording opens with a smoothly delivered overture, featuring some of the most polished wind-playing yet heard from this ensemble, with clean, distant and foreground brass fanfares clearly signaling the chivalric overtones of the story. The strings, though sometimes scratchily raw, are consistently well balanced. The chorus displays its professionalism from the outset, executing striking grace notes and ornaments with precision and elegant fullness in the opening chorus and in the delicate “Chanticleer” number. As the chorus plays a more intricate role in this ensemble opera than in other works of its vintage, the act finales coalesce with a polish that raises the overall impact to a high level. Indeed, solo numbers take a back seat not only to the choral numbers but to a string of sextets, quintets, and other small ensembles of principals, which include at least two madrigal spoofs, the famous “Song of the Brown October Ale,” a rapping, tapping novelty song for the “Merry Journeymen” (as the Sheriff and Guy disguise themselves), and the rollicking final ensemble, with its “too-ra-loo-ra-lays” and “tiffy-fa-las.” The act II sextet actually blends together several stylistic references, including English madrigal textures, Viennese waltz, and the “Fly Duet” from Offenbach’s Orphée.p> In the title role, Timothy Oliver employs a rounded, smooth light tenor, which can ring pleasantly when unforced, as at the beginning of the opera, though he resorts increasingly to falsetto later in the production, and the fatigue of the evening shows in a spreading nasal tone when singing at full bore in his ardent upper register. His Maid Marian, Dominique McCormick, possesses the ideal timbre, tight vibrato, and firm sense of pitch for a soubrette role stemming from French operetta as much as from G&S, though it can wear a bit thin and shrill. McCormick’s sister Danielle brings an appropriate lightness to the much smaller role of Annabel.
Striking comic set pieces include a swaggering anvil song, delivered with gusto and resonance by baritone Gregory Brookes, and Little John’s auction song, sung robustly by baritone Oliver Henderson, who musters a dark, heroic sound for his solo numbers, though his voice grows reedy in some of the ensembles. Another song of interest is the famous “Promise Me,” which has since become a staple wedding ballad. It is sung here by the opera’s one trouser role, Allan-a-Dale. Shrouded by a halo of strings, mezzo Sandra Ross delivers this deceptively simple, lilting tune straightforwardly, with a covered richly textured sound, though she waxes a tad matronly at later points in the opera, which is distracting when one considers that her character is in effect, in terms of the romantic pairings of the plot, the second male lead.
Reviewers of OLO productions have often carped at the datedness and lack of subtlety of the dialogue included in their trademark complete recordings. This is less obtrusive when the work is otherwise unrepresented on disc, or when, as in the present case, the comic acting is well judged. Reeder’s blustery sheriff, Woods’s quaking Sir Guy, and the gusty Dame Durden of Alta Boover all turn in memorably witty performances that seal the work’s relation to the Gilbert mold but do not overstate or overstay their welcome. There simply is no competition for this release as a unique document of a seminal moment in American musical history, and it is remarkably well realized. In short, an essential purchase for anyone interested in operetta or American musical history.
Christopher Williams, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Robin Hood by Reginald De Koven
James Mismas (Baritone),
Dominique McCormick (Soprano),
Alta Boover (Mezzo Soprano),
Timothy Oliver (Tenor),
Sandra Ross (Mezzo Soprano),
Danielle McCormick (Soprano),
Brian Woods (Tenor),
Frederick Reeder (Baritone),
Oliver Henderson (Baritone)
J. Lynn Thompson
Ohio Light Opera
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1890; USA
Venue: Live Wooster College, Wooster, Ohio
Length: 65 Minutes 5 Secs.
Notes: Wooster College, Wooster, Ohio (07/2004 - 08/2004)
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