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Reviews

17 Mar 2019

Desert Island Delights at the RCM: Offenbach's Robinson Crusoe

Britannia waives the rules: The EU Brexit in quotes’. Such was the headline of a BBC News feature on 28th June 2016. And, nearly three years later, those who watch the runaway Brexit-train hurtle ever nearer to the edge of Dover’s white cliffs might be tempted by the thought of leaving this sceptred (sceptic?) isle, for a life overseas.

Robinson Crusoe: RCM Opera Studio, Britten Theatre

A review by Claire Seymour

 

Even a desert island might look more appealing than an island that seems to be heading for its just deserts. As one band of shipwrecked adventurers ruefully reflect - in Don White’s English translation of Jacques Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoe - nineteenth-century Britannia may rule the waves but it’s a land where cheats and charlatans - financial and political - prosper: sometimes it’s sweeter to be “homesick” than “sick of home”.

As far as French musical anniversaries go, Berlioz’s 150th has had more prominence so far this year than Offenbach’s 200th, but the Royal College of Music Opera Studio has re-balanced the scales with this sparkling performance of Offenbach’s 1867 opéra comique in which romantic idealism replaces the racist imperialism of Daniel Defoe’s novel, a text that celebrates its own three hundredth birthday this year.

Robinson Crusoe was Offenbach’s second attempt to get a foot in the door of the Opéra Comique, but though reports suggest that the premiere at Paris’ Salle Favart was well-received, after a 32-performance run it faded from view, making intermittent appearances (in New York in 1875 and - in an altered version, Robinsonade - in Leipzig in 1930) before arriving on British shores in 1973 in a Camden Festival production by Opera Rara. Performed by the latter at the Proms and recorded in 1980, Robinson Crusoe was taken on a tour of the Isles by Kent Opera in 1983 and has popped up every ten years or so: Jeff Clarke’s translation was performed by Opera della Luna in 1994; the Iford Festival presented it in 2004.

The blame for the operetta’s neglect is usually laid at the feet of the librettists, Hector Crémieux and Eugène Cormon. Defoe’s novel - which has little ‘plot’ or character development - certainly needs an overhaul if it is to have dramatic potential, but the bourgeois audience who went to the Opéra Comique to find respectable husbands for their daughters probably found Offenbach’s ridiculing of English mores and manners in Act 1 of the opera no more appealing or appropriate than the more scandalous events of the following two acts where, on a distant utopia, whites and blacks share dreams of love and lust, missionaries are meat for the natives’ hot-pot, and a beautiful blonde is sacrificed at the stake to satisfy the carnal needs of the God Saranah. One imagines that the demi-monde crowd down at the Les Bouffes Parisiens might have found the cancan-ing cannibals and camp pirates more to their taste.

Even Don White’s witty couplets and some splendid vocalising and comic timing from a uniformly terrific cast couldn’t quite lift the laconic lampooning of Act 1 in which Offenbach pokes fun at bourgeois British life. We begin by spying through the key-hole at the Crusoe family’s tea-time rituals - pseudo-sincere sermonising laced with gin and port - as they await the arrival of the perennially tardy Robinson - a romantic dreamer who has heard the voice of the sea, spotted a three-master schooner in Bristol harbour and been bewitched by the lure of life on the high seas.

Designer Sarah Booth’s brown-wallpapered dining-room - a small recess stage-centre, crowded with heavy furniture and framed by projected cameos of the Crusoe clan - is a far cry from the colour, froth and fury whipped up by conductor Michael Rosewell during the overture in which wildly swirling winds alternate with the gentler lapping of a barcarolle. However, as Sir William Crusoe precedes the victuals with a virtue-inspiring re-telling of the parable of the Prodigal Son, Bill Bankes-Jones’ directorial neatness soon makes it clear that the dour manner is spiced with more than a dash of mischief. Artificiality is emphasised: several ensembles end with a freeze-frame pose. Characters climb through the fourth wall to address us from the fore-stage and though this sometimes means that they sing to us rather than to each other, it kindles our affection and gets us on their side - in the best panto tradition.

The fine singing does its work too. Timothy Edlin is a dignified Sir William, but his sonorous bass-baritone, ringing with paternal authority and Presbyterian righteousness, has an underlying warmth that intimates a kind heart and a belly laugh, while his wife, sung vibrantly by Anna Cooper, is clearly wearing the trousers beneath her high-necked black crinoline. Katy Thomson’s Suzanne, the Crusoes’ maid, sports rather more racy under-garments, as butler Toby (sung with beautiful tone and beguiling comic characterisation by Michael Bell) finds to his surprise when Suzanne whips off her apron to reveal a spangly corset and suspenders, and warns Toby that her experiences with Tom, Dick and Harry have equipped her to take the lead in love. Toby’s wide-eyed innocence and mummy’s boy guilelessness belie a spirit true and sure, so it’s no wonder that he promptly tells Robinson that he won’t be joining him on his ocean-going venture. As White so drolly puts it, ‘”My tummy’s got the rummy notion/ Ocean motion’s not for me/ I’m not the sort who gets pedantic/ It’s just the thought of the Atlantic”). Offenbach’s long ensembles are relished, and characterised by secure intonation, an assured vocal blend, choreographic neatness and strongly delineated characterisation.

Despite his cousin Edwige’s attempt to prevent Robinson’s departure with a declaration of love sealed with a kiss - the first of several lovely duets for Catriona Hewitson (whose vocal purity conveys Edwige’s selfless heart) and Joel Williams’ ardent Robinson - the would-be Columbus cannot give up his quest for far-away lands and fortune. And, in Acts 2 and 3, when the trio of rescuers, Suzanne, Toby and Edwige, set out to search for the shipwrecked Robinson and encounter cannibal tribes and bands of inebriate buccaneers, we leave the shores of comique for burlesque, even pantomime (the first such based on Defoe’s novel was written by Sheridan in 1781).

During the quasi-Wagnerian ‘sea-symphony’ which precedes Act 2 (well-shaped by Rosewell) the image of a tiny boat ‘floating’ across a vast sea/skyscape expanse, reminds us of the maritime adventurers’ vulnerability. Then, the day dawns on the sleeping Robinson’s hammock, slung between a four-poster of palm trunks, a few items salvaged from his shipwreck - a chair, wine jug, parrot in a cage, Union Jack - strewn around to remind him of home.

Evidently, this is a temperate zone for despite the sun-drenched vista Robinson is dressed in fur pyjamas, aroused by the dawn chorus from his dreams of home and love. Williams shows how he can temper Robinson’s bright-eyed optimism and self-belief which a judicious hint of a heart made heavy with nostalgia and loneliness, but with the arrival of Fleuranne Brockway’s Man Friday, the twinkle returns to his eye, and master and minion share memories and dreams. Friday’s entrance song makes it immediately clear that Australian Brockway is a wonderfully natural singing-actor: her mezzo is lustrous and pleasing at the top - the sustained high notes ring thrillingly - and, as was clear in the touching fall of the closing phrase of Friday’s discovery of newfound love in the Act 2 Finale - a secure and malleable bottom range. One turns a blind eye to the fact that it is the captured Edwige’s white skin after which Friday lusts: “The whitest flower growing in the forest, the whitest cloud above, the whitest plumage of the whitest dove, in shame would hide so dark beside, beside the beauty of this goddess of love. To love her from afar would be enough for me.” Friday’s smile, sweet nature and chutzpah are winning: “Hit it, Mike!” he cries at the start of the aria in which the tale of how he got his name becomes a revue star-turn.

Brockway is rivalled for stage presence by Theodore Platt who, as Jim Cocks - the Bristol lad turned cannibal chef - is both fun and fearsome. Ghoulishly made-up and dressed in a skeleton body-suit and towering toque, Platt stirs the steaming stew, perched atop a tribal shrine, straddling a huge sculptured head-cum-cauldron, and, with a wicked glint in his eye, faux-laments the fate of his old friends: “'You take a gallon of water and an onion or two/ And though it’s sad, I'm afraid I'll have to add both of you”. As he salt-and-peppers the unseasoned Suzanne and Toby, Jim salaciously explains that the native Tamoyas were vegetarian until they met a missionary: “But a man can’t live by bread, said a passing Presbyterian, so they ate him instead!” “What a horrid thing to do! And to a missionary too! To end up on a barbeque! We’re really in a pretty stew!”

Hewitson shines in her flamboyant waltz song, leaping to the high C# trills with ease, her voice as brilliant as the diamonds with which she imagines being strewn. And, the love duet in which Robinson and Edwige discover that dream has become reality, ‘Oui, c’est un reve’, is exquisitely tender while never losing sight of Offenbach’s tongue-in-cheekiness. But, the sublime is superseded by the downright silly: the cannibals don their Moulin Rouge bustier corsets and tutus for a good old knees-up, before a hook-handed Will Atkins (Edward Jowle) arrives with his boozy bunch of brigands and it’s time for some lusty-voiced audience participation.

Superficially Defoe’s novel was a characteristic travel adventure but its apparent proselytising for a Puritan work ethic masks more sinister undercurrents. Rousseau may have rejoiced, 35 years after its publication, that Robinson Crusoe ‘furnished the finest of treatises on education according to nature’, and Walter Raleigh (in The English Novel, 1894) might have crowed with Victorian confidence that ‘Robinson Crusoe typifies the spirit of the Anglo-Saxon race, and illustrates in epitome the part it has played in India and America’, but Dickens was less enamoured of Defoe’s tale: when Scrooge re-visits his childhood, the book he sees himself reading is Robinson Crusoe - the Cratchets, we see, are his Man Friday. Robinson Crusoe is essentially a capitalist entrepreneur who grasps land and takes its treasures for himself.

One might feel that it’s not a tale that can be made palatable to a 21 st-century audience. But, Offenbach’s arrows are barbed and pointed squarely at the Brits, and Bankes-Jones, his team, and a terrific young cast ensure they hit the target. In dark days, we all need some dalliance and diversion, and this splendid RCM production is just what the doctor ordered.

Claire Seymour

Offenbach: Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe - Joel Williams, Edwige - Catriona Hewitson, Sir William Crusoe - Timothy Edlin, Lady Deborah Crusoe - Anna Cooper, Suzanne - Katy Thomson, Toby - Michael Bell, Man Friday - Fleuranne Brockway, Jim Cocks - Theodore Platt, Will Atkins - Edward Jowle; director - Bill Bankes-Jones, conductor - Michael Rosewell, designer - Sarah Booth, lighting designer - Ralph Stokheld, choreographer - Bim Malcomson, Royal College of Music Opera Studio Chorus and Orchestra.

Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London; Saturday 16th March 2019.

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