Retrospect Opera
Rachel Speirs soprano (Lotty) 
Gaynor Keeble mezzo-soprano (Widow Wantley)
Joseph Doody tenor (Jack Weatherall)
Quentin Hayes baritone (Christopher Caracole)
Jonathan Fisher piano
Edward Dean harmonium
Andrew H. King director


The Soldier’s Legacy is a chamber opera in two acts with piano accompaniment and just four characters. There is also a small part for harmonium depicting the voice of Bully, the bullfinch, a caged bird.

George Alexander Macfarren (1830 – 87) wrote nine symphonies, four concertos, four oratorios, eight cantatas and five string quartets, numerous songs and several operas of which The Soldier’s Legacy was possibly the best known. The accompanying programme notes tell us that Vaughan Williams joked about him as, more gently, did George Bernard Shaw. Wagner wrongly called him ‘a pompous, melancholy Scotsman’. Macfarren, despite the name, was actually a pure-bred Londoner.

He is interesting not just for the relative abundance of his compositions but in an era when many British composers were heavily influenced by continental styles, Macfarren was determined to bring out real Englishness in his music. Many of the melodies in The Soldier’s Legacy pay reference to English folk-songs of his day, although not all are familiar to us today. His music is of course fully tonal and always attractively melodic.

His piano writing is particularly appealing throughout the opera, here delivered so cleanly and clearly by Jonathan Fisher. All four of the singers are excellent, whether in solo or in quite intricate ensemble.

What I found difficult however was the libretto. The rhymes are pretty obvious and there are many repetitive plays on words which could be a bit tiresome in our day. You have to think back to the Victorian era when they were possibly thought of as clever. Apparently, Gilbert and Sullivan were inspired by these operas, but their sense of fun was more prominent, with Gilbert often poking fun at himself, which we can accept.

There is indeed comedy in much of The Soldier’s Legacy but is it possibly too simple and laboured for us today? You hear passages, especially in bright sunny ensembles which certainly point forward to Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music. The concluding plot twist based on Lotty’s full name Charlotte, which has two shortened versions, Lotty and Charley, and it leads to a happy ending for all the characters. 

The sort of thing W. S. Gilbert was fond of.

Review by Alan Cooper