Retrospect Opera to record Raymond and Agnes with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia
- Credit: Pics; John Cocks
A Cheshire-based charity is to make the first full recording of an opera that gives Manchester’s oldest theatre its place in musical history, writes Robert Beale
The Theatre Royal in Peter Street in Manchester – long closed for stage performances – was for many years the city’s home for top-class drama and opera. Built in 1845, it saw the likes of Charles Dickens, Henry Irving and George Cruickshank tread its boards, and in 1854 Charles Hallé collaborated with its then musical director, Edward Loder, on one of the most ambitious opera seasons the city has ever known, before or since.
One outcome of those heady days was the creation of Raymond and Agnes, a Romantic opera in ‘gothic’ style, by Loder, which is today recognized as one of the greatest British works of its kind. Loder’s dramatic gift and music have been compared to Verdi, and Raymond and Agnes is considered his masterpiece.
But Loder never got it on the stage with the international soloists he and Hallé worked with in 1854 – the Crimean War got in the way – and its premiere the following year, with lesser stars, was hardly noticed.
Today it is seen as the only serious opera of real merit ever to have been composed, rehearsed and premiered in the North West of England. And Cheshire-based Retrospect Opera is now putting the full work on record for the first time, with top-quality musicians and singers –helping to fly the flag for British opera from the past.
Retrospect’s CD version of Raymond and Agnes is being made with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Richard Bonynge, CBE. Richard has recorded over 50 full operas in a long international career: his wife was the late great Australian soprano, Dame Joan Sutherland. Soprano Sally Silver will be heroine Agnes, tenor Mark Milhofer the hero Raymond, and baritone Andrew Greenan is the evil Baron. Other roles will be sung by Carolyn Dobbin, Quentin Hayes, Alessandro Fisher and Alexander Robin Baker.
Cheadle Hulme resident Dr Valerie Langfield has been the inspiration that created Retrospect Opera. She was born in London and moved to the North West with husband Dave Le Good, with their two young sons Roland and Erik (now 32 and 27 respectively), in 1991.
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Valerie has a Cambridge degree in music and trained as a singer at the Guildhall School in London. For 20 years she was a computer systems analyst, for the BBC among other organisations.
Once in Cheshire she returned to her first love: music. She had a study of the English composer Roger Quilter published in 2002, which gained her a PhD. Now she is chief accompanist for Stockport Music Service’s examination candidates, an instrumental teacher at the University of Manchester – and composer, musical coach, orchestral pianist and piano teacher.
‘Teaching is a lot more to me than my bread and butter: I had inspiring teachers in London and Cambridge, and that’s why I teach now. I want to pass on what they gave to me.’
Valerie is also an editor and re-creator of musical scores from the past. She has uncovered music from the golden age of opera and made it possible for it to be performed again, and when the Hallé Orchestra celebrated its 150th anniversary she produced a realization of a ‘lost’ work from 1857 which was the Hallé’s first world premiere.
Her work for the Wilmslow-based group Victorian Opera North West resulted in several recordings of full-length works, and in 2014, with a group of friends and academic colleagues, she created Retrospect Opera, a Cheshire-based charitable trust which revives former gems from British lyric theatre of the past, with professional singers, musicians and conductors. Her main partners are David Chandler, Professor of English at Doshisha University in Japan and a writer on British Romantic literature and culture; Manchester-based Andy King, an authority on British music and one-time manager of City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus; and Dr Christopher Wiley, senior lecturer in music at the University of Surrey and a British music specialist.
Retrospect Opera has made the first complete recording of an opera by Dame Ethel Smyth, The Boatswain’s Mate, in Valerie Langfield’s edition, which became Opera magazine’s Recording of the Month and Radio 3’s Building A Library’s choice over several other recordings of Smyth’s music. Valerie’s performing edition was used by opera companies in Switzerland and Canada for full stage performances. She was executive producer for that CD, and then one pairing Pickwick, a comic opera by Victorian duo F C Burnand and Edward Solomon, with Cups and Saucers by George Grossmith. Next year another Ethel Smyth opera, Fête Galante, is to be issued.
For Raymond and Agnes, Valerie obtained a facsimile of the original score from the US Library of Congress, where it has survived. ‘I typeset that by computer and then produced a new score, orchestral parts and vocal score. That took two years. I checked it, and checked it again and checked it again! You don’t want to find musical typos when you’re in rehearsal.’
The team will be glad of more individuals to chip in for their biggest project yet. ‘We look after our subscribers,’ says Valerie. ‘Anyone giving £30 will get a free copy of the CD and their name on the Retrospect Opera website: £75 means you get your name in the CD itself – and there are opportunities for people to come to one or two recording sessions.’
Preparation began earlier this year, with Richard Bonynge visiting the UK to work with the soloists. ‘He’s so excited about this,’ says Valerie Langfield, ‘and impressed by the quality of the music and the orchestration. We’re really proud of what we’ve achieved so far. Hundreds of people have contributed in different ways, we’ve raised money internationally and we’ve sold all over the world. There’s an atmosphere here in the North of England that if you have an idea for something, you just get on and do it – and we have.’
Retrospect Opera’s website is www.retrospectopera.org.uk