Music, food and love
West Road Concert Hall
Gustav Holst: The Wandering Scholar
Lennox Berkeley: A Dinner Engagement
James McOran-Campbell (Louis/The Earl of Dunmow), Lorina Gore (Alison/Susan), James Robinson (Father Philippe), Peter van Hulle (Pierre/Prince Philippe), Carola Darwin (The Countess of Dunmow), Olivia Ray (Mrs Kneebone), Madeleine Shaw (Grand Duchess of Monteblanco), Richard Wheeldon (Errand boy)
Oliver Gooch (conductor), Alistair Boag (director)
Opera East, an energetic five-year-old company, is currently touring East Anglia with a double bill of short English operas. East Anglia, which includes Aldeburgh, Cambridge and a number of well-heeled towns with thriving receiving theatres, is not as short of opera as some regions, but audiences have the habit, and the West Road Concert Hall was close to full. Some were friends and relations of the cast and crew, some musicians or members of the Music Faculty to which the hall belongs, some sponsors or the great and good, and a few probably opera-baggers out to add a couple of rarities to their collections. (Strauss bagging is almost too easy these days, and Holst and Lennox Berkeley have the additional charm of being English, and in English.) But anyone who was there simply in the hope of entertainment wouldn't have done too badly.
The Wandering Scholar, from 1934, could be called an Arts and Crafts fabliau. Based on an alleged true mediaeval episode, it involves an old farmer, his naughty wife, a randy priest and the scholar of the title, who asks the wife for food but doesn't get any because she is keeping it all for the priest. The scholar gets his revenge by dishing the dirt on the wife in verse when her husband comes home. The action is operettaish, but the music is an elegant spin on the English folk-song inspired idiom. It seems a bit odd for French characters to be singing what sound like English folk tunes, but there isn't much more to the opera than a general earthiness, and a touch of misogyny and anti-clericalism, so it hardly matters. Lorina Gore was, well, naughty as the naughty wife, and Peter van Hulle was cryptically attractive as the passionate scholar.
These two singers were impressively almost unrecognizable as the eventual happy couple in Lennox Berkeley's 1954 A Dinner Engagement. Berkeley's tale of aristocrats on their uppers who desperately hope that their unhappy daughter will marry a prince who is coming to dinner has a post-war English setting, but seems almost French in its lightness of musical touch and charming lack of substance, as well as in its focus on food. It may be the only opera that takes place entirely in a kitchen, and even includes a simple but delicious sounding recipe (baked tomatoes stuffed with mushrooms, onion and garlic, topped with cheese) translated from French. Where The Wandering Scholar is well made but feels a little pointless as drama, A Dinner Engagement has a sure comic touch targeted at mid-twentieth century operagoers. The fact that it is still funny is as much a tribute to the skill of Berkeley and his witty librettist Paul Dehn as it a symptom of the conservatism of opera audiences, who are still likely to pick up a quotation of "O mi babbino caro", a parody of Falstaff's pagehood (and a polyphonic closing ensemble) and the amusing inversion of a familiar scene when the grand duchess, finding her son in an embrace with an apparent servant, says sternly "Kiss her!" and blesses the match immediately.
Perhaps an audience today is more likely to sympathize with the daughter who doesn't want to marry a stranger to help her parents' lifestyle, but the Earl and Countess of Dunmow have clearly earned their flitch, never saying a cross word and lamenting their shabbiness gently rather than raging. In this production, Carola Darwin and James McOran-Campbell were touchingly gentle as well as genteel. Madeleine Shaw as the Grand Duchess was a splendid old bat, while Olivia Ray was full of character as the Mrs Kneebone, the paid help. Although she was far too young and suave for the part, she clearly has the makings of a fine comic singing actress.
Simon Fujiwara's sets provided an economical set of walls, reversed from a French farmhouse kitchen to an English one in Kensington, complete with Bisto on the counter. Alistair Boag's direction was deceptively detailed, bringing out humanity in the performances that wasn't necessarily there in the works. The chamber orchestra under Oliver Gooch had a fine grasp of both the drama and the detail of the music in both works.