Opera Album Review: World Premiere Recording of a High-Victorian “Gothic” Opera in English

By Ralph P. Locke

Edward Loder’s well-crafted Raymond and Agnes (1855) captures much of the eerie glow of its Gothic model, Matthew Lewis’s once scandalous novel, The Monk.

Edward J. Loder, Raymond and Agnes.

Majella Cullagh (Agnes), Carolyn Dobbin (Madelina), Mark Milhofer (Raymond), Alessandro Fisher (Theodore), Andrew Greenan (Baron of Lindenberg), Quentin Hayes (Antoni).

Retrospect Opera Chorus and Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Richard Bonynge.

Retrospect Opera 005 [2 CDs] 148 minutes.

The “Gothic” trend in the late 18th and early 19th centuries is still explored in books on literary and art history. It is often described as one strand of early Romanticism, breaking boldly with the contained “classicism” of the 18th century. Interpreters link it to all kinds of societal developments, more or less plausibly: say, to the American and French Revolutions (perceived as threats to order by rulers and aristocrats across Europe) or to unease about the rapid growth of cities (perceived as dirty and dangerous). Whatever its causes, the fascination with the mysterious and the uncanny — ghosts and sleepwalking, half-ruined castles, dirty secrets from long ago — was real. Artists in all fields exploited its popularity, such as Gottfried August Bürger in his widely loved poetic “ballad” Lenore, in which a young woman’s beloved dies and Death Himself comes in the man’s guise to carry Lenore off on horseback and deposit her in the grave to be with him forever. (I review here a musical work by Beethoven’s friend Anton Reicha that, quite evocatively, sets Bürger’s entire text.) In English literature, the classic instance is Matthew Lewis’s novel The Monk: A Romance (1796).

If you know the operatic repertory at all well, you’ll easily think of cases where the Gothic crops up. In Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), for instance, the stressed-out Lucy (to use her name in the Sir Walter Scott novel from which the libretto derives) relates, as she sits near the ruins of an outdoor pool, a vision she had of a murdered young woman whose body, as an old legend had it, was thrown into that pool’s water.

But some works dove into the conventions of the Gothic more fully than Lucia. One of them has finally been released on a recording, thanks to the efforts of Retrospect Opera, an organization devoted to reviving British works of unusual merit, such as Charles Dibdin’s The Wags (1790) and (Dame) Ethel Smyth’s Fête Galante (1923). Their latest release is by Edward J. Loder, who was a prominent composer-conductor in mid-19th century England.

(Aside: It’s tricky to keep the Loders straight. Edward James Loder [1809-65] is the composer here. His piano music, played by Ian Hobson, has been much praised by reviewers. Edward’s cousins George [1816-68] and Kate [1825-1904] likewise composed music of high quality. Edward and George also conducted, quite prominently: George led the US premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth with the New York Philharmonic in 1846. Kate was a major pianist, and there were yet other professional musicians in the family. See also the online musical playlist for the Boydell and Brewer book Musicians of Bath and Beyond: Edward Loder (1809-1865) and His Family, ed. Nicholas Temperley.)

E.J. Loder’s opera Raymond and Agnes (1855) has been much praised by scholars and critics, especially after it was revived for the first time in a week-long 1966 production (with a mix of students and professionals) at Cambridge University supervised by musicologist Nicholas Temperley. Another half century later, we can hear its first recording (made in 2017 and now finally available commercially here or on the usual streaming services). It is not note-complete, but this version is still full enough for us to see what the experts have been raving about.

Conductor Richard Bonynge.  Photo: Wiki Common

The conductor is the renowned Richard Bonynge (born 1930; husband of the late soprano Joan Sutherland), and the singers in the various leading roles are accomplished professionals, notably soprano Majella Cullagh (Agnes) and Mark Milhofer (Raymond). Cullagh, a warm yet flexible soprano, can be heard on over 30 recordings from the Opera Rara label. Milhofer is a high tenor with a focused tone, perfect intonation, and admirably clear enunciation. He is best known in early music but also sings such lyrical roles as Bizet’s Nadir. His recording of Britten’s complete folk song settings has been much praised.

The libretto, by Edward Fitzball, is freely based on Lewis’s aforementioned novel The Monk, which also served as the loose basis for Gounod’s La Nonne sanglante (1854, the year before Raymond and Agnes).

Fitzball used the basic story about Raymond and Agnes from that novel but added to it a number of complications, some of them perhaps inspired by Lewis’s subsequent play The Castle Spectre (1797). In the opera, Agnes’s guardian (unlike the parallel figure in The Monk: her uncle) has a romantic interest in her. He also turns out to have (as the booklet puts it) a “shady past as a brigand” and a “belief that he must marry Agnes to defeat a curse.”

The whole setup of a naive tenor and a curse-haunted bass-baritone struggling over an angelic soprano is closely similar to the one in Weber’s Der Freischütz, a deeply Gothic-influenced German work that Fitzball himself had adapted with great popular success as an English play for the London stage in 1824. There are even some specific points of similarity, such as that the two works begin with a shooting competition and end when the bad guy is shot by the very bullet that he intended for one of the two lovers (the soprano in the Weber, the tenor in the Loder).

Loder, too, was surely familiar with Weber’s opera. He studied in Frankfurt in 1826-28, under Beethoven’s former pupil Ferdinand Ries. And Der Freischütz was by then among the most popular operas in German-speaking lands. (Ries had become a friend of the Loder family while living in England from 1813 to 1824.)

Loder’s Raymond and Agnes was first performed at the Theatre Royal in Manchester in 1855, where, as music director since 1851, he had strenuously worked to build a competent opera company in the English provinces. He had already attained some renown with an opera performed in 1846 in London: The Night Dancers; or, The Wilis (based on the same source as Adolphe Adam’s much-performed 1842 ballet Giselle).

As is typical of most English and German operas of the period (and many lighter French operas), Raymond and Agnes has extensive spoken dialogue between the musical numbers, though also a good deal of effectively written recitative. The work is further enriched by moments of what at the time was called “melodrama”: this consists of spoken phrases alternating with orchestral interjections and also of music, in the pit, that (as in Act 3, scene 1) builds great tension while characters skulk or skirmish onstage.

The main events in the contorted plot are as follows. In his earlier life, the Baron of Lindenberg, living in Spain as a brigand under the name Inigo, killed the Spanish nobleman Don Fernando. An ancestor of the baron had, in Germany, attempted to rape a prioress named Agnes, thereby driving her to commit suicide. The current Baron believes that he can lift the ancient family curse only by marrying the last of the Prioress’s line, who is also named Agnes and who is much younger than he. He therefore has plucked her from Andalusia and put her in safekeeping at a convent (in Germany) until she is old enough for him to marry. (The human passions in Gothic works are often as creepy as the ghostly ones.) But Raymond, the son of the murdered Don Fernando, fell in love with Agnes earlier (in Madrid) and she with him, and he has followed her to Germany.

19th-century illustration of a scene in Edward J. Loder’s opera Raymond and Agnes. Photo: Restrospect Opera

In Act 2 Raymond reveals himself to the Baron as the son of the murdered Don Fernando, and the Baron has him carried to the dungeon. Agnes appears disguised as the “Spectre-Nun” in order to attempt to rescue Raymond. The Baron enters, sleepwalking and haunted by guilt. He hands the castle key to Raymond, who, seizing the opportunity, flees with Agnes. The Baron awakes and orders a pursuit.

Raymond and Agnes take refuge in a cave which, it turns out, is occupied by members of the Baron’s former gang of brigands, led by Antoni. Among them is Ravella, Fernando’s widow (hence Raymond’s mother), whom Antoni had abducted in Spain. The Baron locates the lovers and has them brought back to the castle. The Baron pays Antoni, an expert marksman, to shoot a man who emerges from the castle with “a female on his arm.”

The Baron manipulatively announces to Agnes and Raymond that he has relented and they can leave. He then steps outside to check that Antoni is ready to shoot Raymond. Ravella quickly comes up to him and takes his arm, and Antoni, following instructions literally, shoots the Baron, who dies with a request for forgiveness on his lips. Raymond and Agnes can now marry, under the happy gaze of Raymond’s long-lost mother Ravella. (There is yet more than I have told you: for example, Ravella has been dumb throughout the work and regains speech upon finding her long-lost son.)

The musical style is much as one might expect from an English opera in the 1850s by a composer who was born around the same time as Mendelssohn and was the recipient of German training. The musical numbers are often strophic songs or at least relatively compact (by Italian and French standards). They most often amount to moments of emotional reflection set up by the preceding spoken dialogue, though some also provide certain onstage characters (and us) with crucial background information. Duets and larger ensembles are expansive and effectively interactive. Temperley proposes that the Act 2 duet for Raymond and the Baron “covers a wider range of feeling between the two men than any single movement … in the history of opera.” (Discuss!)

Loder’s melodies are attractive and memorable; his harmony sure, if conventional. The orchestration is pleasingly varied, often in ways that respond to some special event in the onstage action, such as the sudden use of a quasi-angelic harp in the scenes in which Agnes pretends to be the ghost of the innocent, victimized Prioress. The overture is well constructed and packed with memorable tunes: as a concert opener, it would be a splendid alternative to certain overly familiar items by, say, Auber or Suppé.

Loder knew how to write music that would suit a character and a dramatic situation, as in the eloquent, long-breathed lines of “Sadly thro’ the lonely aisle / O Agnes, martyr fair,” the heroine’s first recitative and aria, sung at midnight in the convent’s chapel. Other impressively worked-out numbers are the multimovement duets for Agnes and Raymond in Act 1 and (as mentioned) for Raymond and the Baron in Act 2. There is a wonderful quintet movement (in the Act 2 finale) for Agnes, Madelina, Raymond, and Theodore and — with contrasting words — Baron Lindenberg, clearly reminiscent in shaping, though not in tune, of the famous Sextet from Donizetti’s Lucia of 20 years earlier but none the worse for that. In this movement (which Italians would have called the “largo concertato”), the orchestration is attractively varied with notable woodwind countermelodies.

I should mention that the music does not sound particularly German or English or, for the bandits, Spanish. There is indeed little local color at all. In general, Loder’s music here resembles some of the better music that was being written in the first half of the 19th century. For example, Agnes’s first aria, mentioned above, bears a family resemblance to “La Promessa,” a song from Rossini’s widely known Soirées musicales (1830-35). And why not? Composers take their inspiration wherever they can find it, modeling themselves especially on music that has found favor among audiences at home and abroad.

I couldn’t help but contrast the music to that of Moniuszko’s Halka (1854, rev. 1858), Poland’s most famous opera, a work that I reviewed here a few months ago. Moniuszko is even more up-to-date, reminding us frequently of, say, early Verdi operas in his building up of long and complex musical scenes. The fact that his opera has no spoken dialogue contributes to this as well.

Soprano Majella Cullagh. Photo: courtesy of the artist

But, once one makes allowance for the fact that much of the action in Raymond and Agnes is conveyed in speech rather than music, one quickly senses the rightness of Loder’s dramatic instincts for hinging his musical numbers to the course of the plot. After all, we manage to put up with (or even enjoy) the spoken dialogue in certain standard works, such as The Magic Flute, Fidelio, Der Freischütz, Carmen (in its original version, without Guiraud’s recitatives), and Die Fledermaus.

In addition to the two duets already mentioned, I particularly admired the fine “Terzetto” in the middle of the Act 1 finale, with Agnes’s music sharply contrasting to that of the Baron and Raymond. There is effectively spooky music in such scenes as the opening of Act 2, where various characters wander, shuddering, around the Baron’s dark castle on All Hallows’ Eve (our Halloween), when a ghost is said to walk. Occasionally Loder simply does the best anybody could with a stretta text where all the characters announce their intention (again and again) to make haste to the Castle of Lindenberg. More specifically English is the jolly, madrigal-like text that Agnes, Raymond, and a loving servant-couple (Madelina and Theodor) sing near the end of the work, complete with “Tra la! tra la!” refrain.

Bonynge has collaborated, over his long career, with such great singers as Sutherland, Horne, Pavarotti, and Milnes. Even in his recordings of more recondite repertory, he has repeatedly shown his ability to select singers who can emit beautiful sounds, shape phrases, and show awareness of the meaning behind the sung words. Two out-of-the-way instances: a pirate recording of Isouard’s Cendrillon (once available on the Olympia label), featuring international singers I’d never heard of, and the world-premiere recording of Alfred Cellier’s Dorothy.

Besides the predictably fine Cullagh and Milhofer, we are treated here to a feast of light, lyrical vocalism from British singers, some very experienced, others near the beginning of what sound like promising careers. Each puts her or his role over with great effectiveness. My one serious gripe: the major role of the evil Baron calls for a bass-baritone with steadier tone production and fuller low notes than Andrew Greenan provides.

Bonynge, who was an energetic 87-year-old when he conducted this recording, maintains generally apt tempos, often a bit bouncy (he has recorded much ballet music) and never sluggish, yet also ready to slow a bit at the peak or end of a phrase, or in the brief postlude to a number.

The acoustics are apt throughout, enabling us to feel as if we were at an actual performance, though the recording was made under studio conditions in a London church. The spoken dialogue is rendered with spirit, character, and clarity. (The weakest in this regard is the vicious Antoni, overly polite.) The spoken matter is nearly all tracked separately, so you can skip it if you prefer.

The booklet contains a first-rate historical essay by the aforementioned British-music authority Nicholas Temperley and a superbly detailed synopsis (with track numbers) by David Chandler. The edition was prepared by Valerie Langfield. All in all, the set typifies the care with which Retrospect Opera treats the treasures that it is helping us rediscover.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York ArtsOpera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). The present review first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here with kind permission.

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