The Burglars Opera

Music: Jacques Offenbach
Original libretto: Cormon and Crémieux
New English translation by Jeff Clarke

 

First performance: Opera Comique, Paris 23 November 1867


First performance of the OdL production: (as The English Players, at Longborough Festival Opera, June 1993.)


Robinson Crusoe was the inaugural production of Opera della Luna and was performed at the launch of the company on June 14 1994 at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London.


A new production was prepared for Iford Festival, which opened on July 8 2004.


The cast of the first performance was :

Sir William Crusoe Michael Lessiter
Lady Deborah Crusoe James Biddlecombe
Edwina (their niece) Nicola Sharkey
Suzanne (their maid) Harriet Neave
Toby (the grocery boy) Richard Gauntlett
Robinson Bruce Evans
Friday Michael Samuels
Tamayo Warrior Leroy Jones
Tamayo Warrior Amoon Andrews
Tamayo Chief Michael Lessiter
Will Atkins, a pirate Michael Lessiter
1st Pirate James Biddlecombe
2nd Pirate Richard Gauntlett
3rd Pirate Harriet Neave
   
Director Jeff Clarke
Conductor John Gibbons
Choreographer Jenny Arnold
Set Designer John Gibbons
Costume Designer Katherine Richards
Lighting Designer Ian Scott

 

A Castaway Opera


The success of “I’m-a-celebrity-get-me-out-of-here” is proof of an audience’s enduring fascination with survival and the problems of establishing some kind of civilisation in a natural but hostile environment. The story of the 18th century mariner Alexander Selkirk (the real life castaway) on whom the story of Robinson was based had already aroused considerable interest before Defoe exploited the story further in his novel.

 

Though the novel was immediately successful, one would not expect such a story to be suitable for theatrical treatment. However it is clear from the Lord Chamberlain’s catalogue of plays in the British Library that the story Robinson Crusoesoon took to the stage too. The catalogue lists many versions but by far the majority are pantomimes in the celebrated 19th century tradition. These adaptations were obviously familiar to Offenbach’s librettists who ‘lifted’ not only the names of the other characters from them, but also the basic plot structure whereby we are introduced (as in the opening chapters of the novel) to Robinson’s family and later see most of them arrive on the island to “rescue” him. Pirates and cannibals were of course de rigueur in any cast list.

 

Undoubtedly the popularity of the story as an English pantomime encouraged Offenbach to choose it as a subject for an opera comique. But he was surely also interested in the chance offered in Act One to ridicule a society where dull Sunday afternoons were ordered around the reading of Robinson Crusoethe bible. Robinson’s rejection of this society and subsequent adoption of a more liberal way of life would be something the composer whole-heartedly approved of. While it is easy to identify elements of pantomime in Robinson, there are deeper issues to investigate. We saw in La Belle Helene how Offenbach and his collaborators got themselves into hot water over his ridicule of the clergy in his portrayal of the high priest Calchas. Here again he seized the opportunity to make the churchiness of Robinson’s family environment the main spur to Robinson’s need to escape.


The role of Friday is axiomatic, not only within the love triangle of Robinson/Edwina/Friday, but in his intrinsic mistrust of religion, rejecting both Robinson’s Christianity and his own Tamayo rituals. In Offenbach’s original, Friday was a mezzo-soprano role, and whilst there was an accepted tradition of adolescent boys being played by female singers, it clearly gives a different dynamic to the relationship between Robinson and Friday. I have again resisted the urge to be faithful to the original and prefer to offer a male Friday.


Robinson CrusoeSince I worked on the show ten years ago I have discovered MichelTournier’s Friday – a fascinating re-telling of the story which examines in much greater detail the psychological issues of Robinson and Friday’s relationship and the long spiritual journey the castaway made over his many years on the island. The following extract sheds some interesting light not only on the portrayal of Friday by a woman, but also on the opera’s principal theme.

 

Jeff Clarke

 

"I watch Friday as he walks toward me with his untroubled, steady pace over the shining sand of the lagoon. Shall I ever learn to walk with his natural majesty? Do I sound absurd if I say that he seems clothed by his nakedness? I watch as he dives amid the breakers rolling up the beach; and the kind of dance in which he is engaged, the natural grace and elegance of his movements, the gaiety, the gleam of wet, firm flesh, all this brings to my mind the thought of Venus rising from the waves. This is one of the many threads of significance centred upon Friday which I seek to disentangle, and it is related even to the name I have bestowed on him. Friday, if I am not mistaken, is in its ancient meaning the day of Venus. To Christians it is the day of the death of Christ. I cannot help feeling that in this conjunction, fortuitous though it may be, there is a mystery beyond my grasp, and one which shocks what is left of the devout Puritan I once was."

 

From FRIDAY by Michel Tournier, translated by Norman Denny, published by The John Hopkins University Press.

 

 

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Reviews

 

Robinson Crusoe
Iford Manor, Bradford-on-Avon

 

Offenbach’s comic opera had been cast away in a far-flung corner of the repertoire when Opera della Luna rescued it in 1994. The company’s speciality is staging pieces generally thought lunatic for far bigger companies to contemplate and now, as it celebrates a defiant decade, Crusoe gets a welcome comeback.

 

Iford Manor’s tiny Italianate cloister has a captivating atmosphere. But since it accommodates an audience of just 90 on three sides and a handful of musicians on the fourth, the challenge of opera in the square could hardly be greater. Yet Della Luna’s shoe-string resourcefulness could teach the big boys a thing or two: the Crusoe family drawing room is transformed inseconds into the ship on billowing waves that takes Robinson to the Orinoco.

 

Offenbach pokes huge fun at religion in this piece, and director Jeff Clarke’s witty translation underlines why son of the manse Robinson is
a headstrong tearaway before he’s a castaway. Oliver White made him an attractive character. The libretto sails close to the wind in PC terms, but shipwreck was averted by the casting of Samoan Sani Muliaumaseali’i as a noble Man Friday. A tenor with baritone richness, Muliaumaseali’i was outstanding.

 

The production was not without its travesty element, though, with Simon Butteriss's Lady Crusoe a pantomime dame that suited Offenbach's
deliberately farcical moments. That Butteriss went on to play the cannibal chef and a das tardly pirate illustrates how neatly Clarke juggled seven
singers, two dancers and the implausible plot. Victoria Joyce was Crusoe’s silver voiced fiancee Edwina, and conductor John Gibbons’s deft handling of her lyrical aria and the final trio with Crusoe and Friday suggested there are good musical reasons for staging Offenbach oftener.


Rian Evans

 

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The most recent cast of Robinson Crusoe:

Sir William Crusoe
JOHN FERNON

Lady Deborah Crusoe
SIMON BUTTERISS

Edwina (their niece)
VICTORIA JOYCE

Suzanne (their maid)
ROSEMARY ASHE

Toby (the grocery boy)
HARRY NICOLL

Robinson
OLIVER WHITE

Friday
SANI MULIAUMASEALI’I

Tamayo Warriors
TONY JAMES-ANDERSSON
NICHOLAS NORMAN

Tamayo Chief
JOHN FERNON

Will Atkins, a pirate
JOHN FERNON

1st Pirate
SIMON BUTTERISS

2nd Pirate
HARRY NICOLL

3rd Pirate
ROSEMARY ASHE