Requirements for an opera in a conservatoire production: a generous number of roles with at least one knockout aria (Tosca need not apply), rousing choruses, lush orchestration with opportunities for your wind players to strut their stuff, and preferably some upbeat music and plot shenanigans for everyone to have a good laugh. Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoe, the Royal College of Music’s choice for this term’s production, ticks every box.

© Chris Christodoulou
© Chris Christodoulou

You can forgive yourself for never having heard of Robinson Crusoé, which has hardly been performed since its opening run at the Opéra-Comique in 1867. According to last night’s director, Bill Bankes-Jones, that’s largely because Eugène Cormon and Hector Crémieux’s libretto is unbearably turgid. The solution has been to use an English “translation” (I use the word in the loosest possible sense) done 25 years ago by Don White, which is nothing short of delightful: it’s slick, frothy and laden with gags and clever rhymes. The passage towards the end where the English are explaining to Man Friday the charms of their homeland is hilarious (spoiler – we’re not talking about Victorian Britain here).

The main singers did the RCM proud. In the title role, Joel Williams is more than ready for lyric tenor roles in bigger houses: the voice has warmth and lilt, his phrasing is naturally elegant and his manner is deliciously engaging. Williams is definitely a name to look out for. As Crusoe’s beloved Hedwige, Catriona Hewitson has a lovely peaches-and-cream timbre which doesn’t go sour when she ratchets up the power, of which she has plenty in reserve. Her coloratura isn't the most flexible and there was the occasional hesitation before nailing a high note, but those high notes were indeed nailed, and she has an enviable ability to make a long note bloom as it progresses. It’s going to be a long journey for Hewitson from here to big Wagnerian roles, but I want to be there when she arrives.

As well as having a pleasant and technically competent voice, Fleuranne Brockway showed the best comic chops of the evening as Man Friday (a trouser role, for some reason). As the maid Suzanne, Katy Thomson made the most of her big aria in Act 1 as well as giving fine comic support and singing well in ensemble. Theodore Platt was thoroughly entertaining as the cannibal chef (yes, you read it correctly) Jim Cocks, although his West Country accent is best forgotten, along with that of most of the pirate chorus. Timothy Edlin and Anna Cooper were tuneful, fervent and amusing as Crusoe’s parents.

© Chris Christodoulou
© Chris Christodoulou

Offenbach’s score is a magpie’s nest: packed with bright shiny things, many of them purloined or pastiched from a variety of operatic sources. Most of all, it’s huge fun from beginning to end, whether he’s turning on the faux-romantic slush or hitting the boards with the obligatory can-can. Under the baton and watchful eye of Michael Rosewell, the RCM’s orchestra gave us all the vivacity we could have wished for, lit up by some vibrant wind playing, with horns and oboe outstanding. Sure, the strings weren’t always in perfect tune and the orchestra had moments of severe disassociation from the chorus, especially in the first of the pirate choruses in Act 3. But they played a full part in making this a memorable evening.

A full part was also played by Bankes-Jones’ setting: the claustrophobia of a tiny, over-furnished Victorian front room in Act 1 neatly morphing into the desert island of Acts 2 and 3, the pirates looking suitably out of a comic book (and featuring an alarming number of Jack Sparrow lookalikes). And Bankes-Jones keeps everybody moving: all the cast and chorus have plenty to do and they accomplish it all with reasonable precision.

The evening had two Achilles heels. The first is inherent in the work: the score has plenty enough music to keep one entertained for three hours. But there simply isn’t enough dramatic material to fill that amount of time. If you compare it to Offenbach classics like Orfée aux enfers or La Belle Hélène or even lesser known operas like Vert-vert, there is so little actual plot that the story drags: we could have done with more employment of the editorial scissors. The second lies in the Personenregie. The singers may have excelled vocally and may have accomplished all the moves asked of them, but their movement was stiff, neither natural enough to make you believe in their characters nor exaggerated enough for extreme caricature. Directors of big league productions will demand better body language, including – if one’s going to stage waltzes – better dancing.

But those cavils certainly didn’t spoil a delicious evening which showed off its young talent to best advantage and made us want more Offenbach.

****1