Desert Island Delights at the RCM: Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoe

Even a desert island might look more appealing than an island that seems to
be heading for its just deserts. As one band of shipwrecked adventurers
ruefully reflect – in Don White’s English translation of Jacques
Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoe – nineteenth-century Britannia may
rule the waves but it’s a land where cheats and charlatans – financial and
political – prosper: sometimes it’s sweeter to be “homesick” than “sick of

As far as French musical anniversaries go, Berlioz’s 150th has
had more prominence so far this year than Offenbach’s 200th, but
the Royal College of Music Opera Studio has re-balanced the scales with
this sparkling performance of Offenbach’s 1867 opÈra comique in which romantic idealism replaces the racist
imperialism of Daniel Defoe’s novel, a text that celebrates its own three
hundredth birthday this year.

Robinson Crusoe
was Offenbach’s second attempt to get a foot in the door of the OpÈra
Comique, but though reports suggest that the premiere at Paris’ Salle
Favart was well-received, after a 32-performance run it faded from view,
making intermittent appearances (in New York in 1875 and – in an altered
version, Robinsonade – in Leipzig in 1930) before arriving on
British shores in 1973 in a Camden Festival production by Opera Rara.
Performed by the latter at the Proms and recorded in 1980, Robinson Crusoe was taken on a tour of the Isles by Kent Opera in
1983 and has popped up every ten years or so: Jeff Clarke’s translation was
performed by Opera della Luna in 1994; the Iford Festival presented it in

The blame for the operetta’s neglect is usually laid at the feet of the
librettists, Hector CrÈmieux and EugËne Cormon. Defoe’s novel – which has
little ‘plot’ or character development – certainly needs an overhaul if it
is to have dramatic potential, but the bourgeois audience who went to the
OpÈra Comique to find respectable husbands for their daughters probably
found Offenbach’s ridiculing of English mores and manners in Act 1 of the
opera no more appealing or appropriate than the more scandalous events of
the following two acts where, on a distant utopia, whites and blacks share
dreams of love and lust, missionaries are meat for the natives’ hot-pot,
and a beautiful blonde is sacrificed at the stake to satisfy the carnal
needs of the God Saranah. One imagines that the demi-monde crowd down at
the Les Bouffes Parisiens might have found the cancan-ing cannibals and
camp pirates more to their taste.

Even Don White’s witty couplets and some splendid vocalising and comic
timing from a uniformly terrific cast couldn’t quite lift the laconic
lampooning of Act 1 in which Offenbach pokes fun at bourgeois British life.
We begin by spying through the key-hole at the Crusoe family’s tea-time
rituals – pseudo-sincere sermonising laced with gin and port – as they
await the arrival of the perennially tardy Robinson – a romantic dreamer
who has heard the voice of the sea, spotted a three-master schooner in
Bristol harbour and been bewitched by the lure of life on the high seas.

Designer Sarah Booth’s brown-wallpapered dining-room – a small recess
stage-centre, crowded with heavy furniture and framed by projected cameos
of the Crusoe clan – is a far cry from the colour, froth and fury whipped
up by conductor Michael Rosewell during the overture in which wildly
swirling winds alternate with the gentler lapping of a barcarolle. However,
as Sir William Crusoe precedes the victuals with a virtue-inspiring
re-telling of the parable of the Prodigal Son, Bill Bankes-Jones’
directorial neatness soon makes it clear that the dour manner is spiced
with more than a dash of mischief. Artificiality is emphasised: several
ensembles end with a freeze-frame pose. Characters climb through the fourth
wall to address us from the fore-stage and though this sometimes means that
they sing to us rather than to each other, it kindles our affection and
gets us on their side – in the best panto tradition.

The fine singing does its work too. Timothy Edlin is a dignified Sir
William, but his sonorous bass-baritone, ringing with paternal authority
and Presbyterian righteousness, has an underlying warmth that intimates a
kind heart and a belly laugh, while his wife, sung vibrantly by Anna
Cooper, is clearly wearing the trousers beneath her high-necked black
crinoline. Katy Thomson’s Suzanne, the Crusoes’ maid, sports rather more
racy under-garments, as butler Toby (sung with beautiful tone and beguiling
comic characterisation by Michael Bell) finds to his surprise when Suzanne
whips off her apron to reveal a spangly corset and suspenders, and warns
Toby that her experiences with Tom, Dick and Harry have equipped her to
take the lead in love. Toby’s wide-eyed innocence and mummy’s boy
guilelessness belie a spirit true and sure, so it’s no wonder that he
promptly tells Robinson that he won’t be joining him on his ocean-going
venture. As White so drolly puts it, ‘”My tummy’s got the rummy notion/
Ocean motion’s not for me/ I’m not the sort who gets pedantic/ It’s just
the thought of the Atlantic”). Offenbach’s long ensembles are relished, and
characterised by secure intonation, an assured vocal blend, choreographic
neatness and strongly delineated characterisation.

Despite his cousin Edwige’s attempt to prevent Robinson’s departure with a
declaration of love sealed with a kiss – the first of several lovely duets
for Catriona Hewitson (whose vocal purity conveys Edwige’s selfless heart)
and Joel Williams’ ardent Robinson – the would-be Columbus cannot give up
his quest for far-away lands and fortune. And, in Acts 2 and 3, when the
trio of rescuers, Suzanne, Toby and Edwige, set out to search for the
shipwrecked Robinson and encounter cannibal tribes and bands of inebriate
buccaneers, we leave the shores of comique for burlesque, even
pantomime (the first such based on Defoe’s novel was written by Sheridan in

During the quasi-Wagnerian ‘sea-symphony’ which precedes Act 2 (well-shaped
by Rosewell) the image of a tiny boat ‘floating’ across a vast sea/skyscape
expanse, reminds us of the maritime adventurers’ vulnerability. Then, the
day dawns on the sleeping Robinson’s hammock, slung between a four-poster
of palm trunks, a few items salvaged from his shipwreck – a chair, wine
jug, parrot in a cage, Union Jack – strewn around to remind him of home.

Evidently, this is a temperate zone for despite the sun-drenched vista
Robinson is dressed in fur pyjamas, aroused by the dawn chorus from his
dreams of home and love. Williams shows how he can temper Robinson’s
bright-eyed optimism and self-belief which a judicious hint of a heart made
heavy with nostalgia and loneliness, but with the arrival of Fleuranne
Brockway’s Man Friday, the twinkle returns to his eye, and master and
minion share memories and dreams. Friday’s entrance song makes it
immediately clear that Australian Brockway is a wonderfully natural
singing-actor: her mezzo is lustrous and pleasing at the top – the
sustained high notes ring thrillingly – and, as was clear in the touching
fall of the closing phrase of Friday’s discovery of newfound love in the
Act 2 Finale – a secure and malleable bottom range. One turns a blind eye
to the fact that it is the captured Edwige’s white skin after which Friday
lusts: “The whitest flower growing in the forest, the whitest cloud above,
the whitest plumage of the whitest dove, in shame would hide so dark
beside, beside the beauty of this goddess of love. To love her from afar
would be enough for me.” Friday’s smile, sweet nature and chutzpah are
winning: “Hit it, Mike!” he cries at the start of the aria in which the
tale of how he got his name becomes a revue star-turn.

Brockway is rivalled for stage presence by Theodore Platt who, as Jim Cocks
– the Bristol lad turned cannibal chef – is both fun and fearsome.
Ghoulishly made-up and dressed in a skeleton body-suit and towering toque,
Platt stirs the steaming stew, perched atop a tribal shrine, straddling a
huge sculptured head-cum-cauldron, and, with a wicked glint in his eye,
faux-laments the fate of his old friends: “’You take a gallon of water and
an onion or two/ And though it’s sad, I’m afraid I’ll have to add both of
you”. As he salt-and-peppers the unseasoned Suzanne and Toby, Jim
salaciously explains that the native Tamoyas were vegetarian until they met
a missionary: “But a man can’t live by bread, said a passing Presbyterian,
so they ate him instead!” “What a horrid thing to do! And to a missionary
too! To end up on a barbeque! We’re really in a pretty stew!”

Hewitson shines in her flamboyant waltz song, leaping to the high C# trills
with ease, her voice as brilliant as the diamonds with which she imagines
being strewn. And, the love duet in which Robinson and Edwige discover that
dream has become reality, ‘Oui, c’est un reve’, is exquisitely tender while
never losing sight of Offenbach’s tongue-in-cheekiness. But, the sublime is
superseded by the downright silly: the cannibals don their Moulin Rouge
bustier corsets and tutus for a good old knees-up, before a hook-handed
Will Atkins (Edward Jowle) arrives with his boozy bunch of brigands and
it’s time for some lusty-voiced audience participation.

Superficially Defoe’s novel was a characteristic travel adventure but its
apparent proselytising for a Puritan work ethic masks more sinister
undercurrents. Rousseau may have rejoiced, 35 years after its publication,
that Robinson Crusoe ‘furnished the finest of treatises on
education according to nature’, and Walter Raleigh (in The English Novel, 1894) might have crowed with Victorian
confidence that ‘Robinson Crusoe typifies the spirit of the Anglo-Saxon
race, and illustrates in epitome the part it has played in India and
America’, but Dickens was less enamoured of Defoe’s tale: when Scrooge
re-visits his childhood, the book he sees himself reading is Robinson Crusoe – the Cratchets, we see, are his Man
Friday. Robinson Crusoe is essentially a capitalist entrepreneur who grasps
land and takes its treasures for himself.

One might feel that it’s not a tale that can be made palatable to a 21 st-century audience. But, Offenbach’s arrows are barbed and
pointed squarely at the Brits, and Bankes-Jones, his team, and a terrific
young cast ensure they hit the target. In dark days, we all need some
dalliance and diversion, and this splendid RCM production is just what the
doctor ordered.

Claire Seymour

Offenbach: Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe – Joel Williams, Edwige – Catriona Hewitson, Sir William
Crusoe – Timothy Edlin, Lady Deborah Crusoe – Anna Cooper, Suzanne – Katy
Thomson, Toby – Michael Bell, Man Friday – Fleuranne Brockway, Jim Cocks –
Theodore Platt, Will Atkins – Edward Jowle; director – Bill Bankes-Jones,
conductor – Michael Rosewell, designer – Sarah Booth, lighting designer –
Ralph Stokheld, choreographer – Bim Malcomson, Royal College of Music Opera
Studio Chorus and Orchestra.

Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London; Saturday 16th
March 2019.

product_title=Robinson Crusoe: RCM Opera Studio, Britten Theatre
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour