Until recently, the era of English Romantic Opera (1834–1867) was a closed book to all but a few historians and enthusiasts. It has begun to re-emerge with professional recordings of operas by such once celebrated composers as Michael William Balfe, George Alexander Macfarren, and William Vincent Wallace. But there is one opera that stands out from the rest: Edward James Loder’s Raymond and Agnes, premiered at the Theatre Royal, Manchester, in 1855 and revived at the St James’s Theatre, London, in 1859. Retrospect Opera is raising funds to record this supreme example of mid-nineteenth-century English opera.
On the occasion of the work’s last revival, at Cambridge in 1966, Nicholas Temperley concluded, ‘Loder’s musical and dramatic gifts were far more impressive than those of Balfe and Wallace. The music … maintains a high level of inspiration, variety, and continuity almost throughout. Loder reveals quite unexpected resources of harmony, while his orchestration is masterly; and he provides memorable tunes, both plain and ornate, when appropriate’ (Musical Times, April 1966).
Temperley’s view was supported by many of the critics who attended the Cambridge performances. ‘The music has the undeniable, unmistakable touch, not of a hack, but of a real composer,’ said Hugh Macdonald in the Cambridge News (3 May 1966). ‘In the second act the score develops a sustained dramatic attack that is all too rare in the annals of English opera’ (Peter Heyworth in The Observer, 9 May). ‘The opera made on me a strong impression—stronger even than I guessed at the time, for some of its music has gone on ‘haunting’ me; both several of the tunes, and the effect of the sustained, resourceful ensembles’ (Andrew Porter in The Musical Times, June 1966). ‘Loder’s melodies have been echoing through my mind since the performance; I long to hear them again. His orchestration is skilful, often imaginative. … Some of the choral scenes are first-class…, and the chorus when Raymond is arrested has a big, swinging, Verdian melody, richly harmonized. Both the duets for the lovers are strong stuff. And finest of all are the ensembles, notably the trio in the first finale and the quintet in the second—this last rather like Rossini’s Cenerentola quintet, beautifully written, catching the sensation of the situation to perfection’ (Stanley Sadie in Opera, July 1966).
Later opinions have been no less emphatic. ‘The sense of drama and depth of musical characterization is close to Verdi, especially in the magnificent confrontation between Raymond and Inigo in Act 2, and in the quintet ‘Lost! and in a dream’’ (Nigel Burton in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, 1992). ‘Of all the operas of early Victorian Britain, there is one—to my mind at least—that stands out. In terms of musical characterisation, orchestral writing and dramatic impact, Raymond and Agnes by Edward Loder more than any other breaks the stranglehold of ballad, which smothered British opera for much of the nineteenth century, and comes far closer to the great Italian traditions of the day’ (Roderic Dunnett, BBC Radio 3, 13 February 1995). Charles Osborne wrote in Opera (June 2002): ‘I had not heard of [Loder] until 1966 when Eric Walter White … told me that Loder’s Raymond and Agnes was about to be staged in Cambridge and that, as a Verdi enthusiast, I should not miss it, for Loder was the English equivalent of early Verdi. … I was in the audience at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on that night in May 1966, and I was bowled over by Raymond and Agnes. Its intensity, and Loder’s gift for melody and musical characterization, were indeed Verdian and marvellously exciting. … I have, in fact, more than once attempted to alert the Royal Opera and English National Opera to the existence of Loder, an English composer who surely deserves to be promoted by English or British companies. … So far my pleas have fallen on deaf ears. But the Loder revival, which will surely come one day, does not have to begin in London.’
The story of the opera is taken from an episode in Matthew Lewis’s classic Gothic novel The Monk (1796), which had already received several stage treatments by the time it was turned into a libretto by Edward Fitzball. It also includes elements of Lewis’s The Castle Spectre (1797). A story of true loved tested and triumphant along with an over-the-top melodramatic villain, incarceration, a sleep-walking scene, shooting, and a ghost, Raymond and Agnes actually shares many of the same elements as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, the most successful musical of modern times.