Retrospect Opera have carefully carved out an important place in recording hitherto unrecorded, or under-represented pre-20th Century British operas. George Alexander MacFarren remains a somewhat peripheral figure in the story of classical music in the British Isles, but his output is considerable, including nine symphonies and four concertos among an array of operas and chamber operas, yet almost his entire output languishes in obscurity. Part of this is undoubtedly due to his being the subject of some mockery, as the liner notes to this CD point out: “Vaughan Williams joked about him, George Bernard Shaw gently mocked his conservatism and Wagner got his name and nationality wrong”.
The Soldier’s Legacy is a comparatively late work by the composer: an opera de camera for piano and singers, occasionally featuring the addition of a harmonium (depicting Bully the caged bullfinch). The piece is scored for only four singers and rather skilfully uses five out of the six possible voice combinations available to the composer with some particularly impressive ensemble writing despite the chamber opera setting. There are also interesting allusions to folk songs that would have been recognisable to 1864 audiences as well as some interesting treatment of motifs, intriguing in itself as MacFarren was a near exact contemporary of Wagner and Verdi. Musically this is a most charming affair, though I am left rather cold by the rather mechanical libretto (though, again an 1864 audience may have responded rather differently) and a storyline that is as predictable as they come.
The cast execute their roles admirably. It is in the dialogue sections that the weaknesses of the libretto are perhaps most evident and the charismatic quartet do their best to inject a little reflective wit into the proceedings. Mezzo Soprano Gaynor Keeble as Widow Wantley opens the show (after a brief and very attractive prelude on the piano) and she perfectly sets the scene for the work to come, deftly combining what promises to be charming comedy, just slightly tinged by sadness. Baritone Quentin Hayes similarly injects plenty of humour into the role of Christopher Caracole, the over-protective guardian of Charlotte, whilst always displaying appropriate warmth for the role without ever letting it descend into mere caricature. Tenor Joseph Doody and soprano Rachel Spiers are much younger performers than Keeble and Hayes, but are entirely convincing as the two lovers around which much of the plot will revolve, although I must admit it is to the two more mature voices that I gravitate in this particular work.
At two hours long, voices, piano and harmonium does become a rather exhausting listen (especially without a staging viewable) and despite the admirable qualities in the score, the majority of the numbers are in strophic form and so at times it does begin to lack variety. However, the story moves at an agreeable pace without too many longueurs along the way and it does boast its fair share of memorable tunes. So while I do have reservations that this release will make the case for a triumphant return of MacFarren’s work to the stage, we can still rejoice at the latest edition from Retrospect Opera’s ever growing and always fascinating collection.