G. Herbert Rodwell: Jack Sheppard

Simon Butteriss, Charlie Baptie, Peter Benedict, Daniel Huttlestone, Emily Vine, Stephen Higgins
Retrospect Opera

This CD release represents a real first for me as a listener and I think a true first for any recording company. The liner notes that accompany this release inform the listener that this is the first known attempt to render an audio recording of a Victorian melodrama. George Herbert Buonaparte Rodwell was a prolific writer for the theatre and, after the death of his brother, briefly proprietor of the AdelphiTheatre in London (he would later be bought out by Daniel Terry and Paul Henry Yates after only a short time). Taking cues from earlier Ballad Operas (there are in fact direct references to John Gay of The Beggars’ Opera fame in the plot), Jack Sheppard gives a fictionalised account of the real life thief and many time prison escapee of the title. In the melodrama, however, Jack is more than simply a bad lot, but an honourable brand of thief. In the first two scenes, the rebellious young man uncovers a plot to obscure the existence of his friend Thames Darrell, who is actually high-born, but initially presumed dead by his family. However, when Darrell’s identity is realised, his father and an unscrupulous lawyer, Jonathan Wild, conspire to have him killed. Sheppard’s attempts to save Darrell result in his being pursued by both law enforcers and criminals, both of whom would see him dead. Will Sheppard succeed in his aim? Well you’ll have to listen to find out in this rip-roaring yarn replete with wanton acts of criminality and numerous twists and turns.

The piece as a whole, as the liner notes point out, does not really fit with the idea of what constitutes an opera to a modern listener. There are some instrumental passages (on piano alone) and most of the songs are straightforward strophic structures with occasional refrains. Similarly, many of the songs are incidental to the action: rather than serving the advancement of the plot, these are songs that might conceivably have been sung by a character were they songs that existed outside of the context of the piece. Rodwell’s work, therefore, is compelling and quite convincing in its attempts to deploy references to previous theatrical forms in a new and modern work, suiting his own times. As with many theatrical works of the period, the language is occasionally rather “precious” and some aspects of the plot are somewhat clunky in their scripting (“I need not remind you of the fact…” to introduce the audience to things of which the characters must already be well aware). This may slightly detract from the ‘thriller’ aspect of the work, but never to a degree that compromises it as a highly entertaining listen.

The cast on display here is remarkable. This is not least thanks to their multi-role appearances. Peter Benedict assumes four roles, including the morally dubious, but ultimately tragic figure of Sir Rowland Trenchard and it is he (along with Sheppard) that most encapsulates the moral conflict at the centre of the piece: how apparently upstanding individuals can veer off the rails and how seemingly criminal characters might seek atonement. Benedict also plays Owen Wood, the guardian of Sheppard and Darrell at the beginning of the piece and yet the performances are so markedly differing that there is never any danger of confusing characters played by the same actor. The same can be said of Simon Butteriss (who has featured on several Retrospect Opera releases already), in no fewer than six roles, including a female character and

the narrator of the tale! In a dazzling display of acting ability, both Benedict and Butteriss are able to differentiate every character they play to such an extent that you could believe they are all being played by different actors. Also in multiple roles is the younger actor Daniel Huttlestone, who plays Thames Darrell (achieving an emotional core in his performance that is admirably sincere, without appearing cheesy, as this character could so easily be) as well as the decidedly less salubrious characters Slimkid and Quilt. Emily Vine brings a very sweet soprano as well as a performance of warmth and humanity to the relatively thankless part of Winky, with the result that we instantly care about this character every bit as much as those with whom we spend more time. The other single-role performer (with good reason, as he appears in every scene) is Charli Baptie as the titular Jack Sheppard. In this role, Baptie totally convinces as the young man Jack, despite being herself possessed of a lovely soprano voice. Her training and experience in musical theatre will undoubtedly have prepared her for this vocal variety, but she may still leave the listener pinching themselves, as they remember that this is not a male performer. She somehow manages to capture Jack’s hard-edged side as well as his sensitivity: the ideal qualifications for bringing the character to our ears.

Those familiar with ‘old-time’ radio drama may find much to enjoy here, as this is essentially a thriller set to music: the perfect CD for the winter months. Dim the lights, pour yourself a glass or two of something, relax and enjoy! DA

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