Stephen Higgins piano
Retrospect Opera RO010
Retrospect Opera is an independent charitable recording company devoted to reviving British Operas or related theatrical musical entertainments from the period 1750 – 1950. Jack Sheppard was one of the most successful 19th century melodramas. The hero, or rather, anti-hero, was a real person, a celebrated jail-breaker (1702 -24). The melodrama written by John Baldwin Buckstone (1802 -79) was based on the novel Jack Sheppard by William Harrison Ainsworth (1805 – 1882). The music was by George Herbert Buonaparte Rodwell (1800 -1852).
The original staged version could have been as long as four hours with full orchestral music, now lost. This recorded version on a single CD lasts just over an hour in an adaptation by David Chandler and Valerie Langfield. Langfield has arranged the piano music, all of it by Rodwell, some taken from his earlier work, The Flying Dutchman, composed before Wagner. Much of this incidental music, played on piano by Stephen Higgins, reminded me of music for silent films, full of unsurprising dramatic flourishes. Rodwell’s songs sound very much like singalong English folk tunes.
The big hit of the day was the slang song Nix My Dolly, meaning Nothing to worry about. Copious notes in the accompanying booklet provide a helpful glossary of the mostly criminal underworld terms of the time, which this song uses throughout.
The performance as a whole reminded me of a radio play in the days before we had television. The addition of a narrator is necessary to provide details of the action. Simon Butteriss is the narrator. He also sings and plays six different characters. This does not always work, since even with different accents, his voice is easily recognisable.
The performers play the melodrama absolutely straight. It would be so easy to make fun of the story which in the third and final act brings in John Gay who wrote The Beggar’s Opera and William Hogarth famed for his cartoons of The Rake’s Progress. The singers, especially the two sopranos, are excellent. Note that Charli Baptie who plays Jack Sheppard aged thirteen, also plays and sings him as an adult. This was also the case in the original staged productions.
This performance sheds light on what was popular on the Victorian stage. Nowadays, it is of greatest value for historical interest. A precursor of what we know as musicals. Would it pack out London’s musical theatres today? Probably not!
Review by Alan Cooper