05 Jun 2018

A culinary coupling from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

What a treat the London Music Conservatoires serve up for opera-goers each season. After the Royal Academy’s Bizet double-bill of Le docteur Miracle and La tragédie de Carmen, and in advance of the Royal College’s forthcoming pairing of Huw Watkins’ new opera, In the Locked Room, based on a short story by Thomas Hardy, and The Lighthouse by Peter Maxwell Davies, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama have delivered a culinary coupling of Paul Hindemith’s The Long Christmas Dinner and Sir Lennox Berkeley’s The Dinner Engagement which the Conservatoire last presented for our delectation in November 2006.

Where else would we be able to enjoy intelligently produced, skilfully delivered performances of short operas which are all too seldom performed? And, a conversation-piece and a comedy of manners might seem perfectly complementary dishes. On this occasion, however, this pair of dinner-table divertissements made for a rather disconcerting contrast of flavours.

Designer Cordelia Chisholm’s central rectangular frame links both works. In Paul Hindemith’s The Long Christmas Dinner - ­the composer’s final opera, written in 1960-61, which sets a libretto by Thornton Wilder, based on the playwright’s 1931 stage drama - a Puritan sparseness seems to be the touchstone. An expansive formal dinner table, laden with crockery, glassware and candelabras, slowly revolves on a bare wooden stage, encased within the geometric frame. Together with passageways leading in from the left, denoting births and new beginnings, and out to the right, indicating death, the circles enact the passing of 90 years in the lives of several generations of the Bayard family in New England.

Alexandra Lowe (Lucia), Emily Kyte (Genevieve), Madison Nonoa (Leonora), Carmen Artaza (Mother Bayard).jpgAlexandra Lowe (Lucia), Emily Kyte (Genevieve), Madison Nonoa (Leonora), Carmen Artaza (Mother Bayard).

The ‘Christmas’ setting indicated by the title is briefly alluded to in the falling snow depicted on the gauze front-cloth, which gathers momentum and weight during the instrumental prelude, but thereafter there is little to suggest a festive mood. A stage direction in Wilder’s play reads: ‘Throughout the play the characters continue eating imaginary food with imaginary knives and forks’; but there is not much indulgence or imbibing in evidence here, apart from the occasional slug from a glass wine goblet.

Instead, births and deaths, marriages and confrontations, financial good fortune and decline, unfold without undue melodrama, as the characters are swept through a panoply of situations and emotions, as is the way with families.

The young singers communicated effectively through Hindemith’s parlando style, each allotted their moment to shine. Of the ‘set pieces’, the love duet, ‘Light is her step on the stair and floor’, between first-generation son Charles (Frederick Jones) and his bride Leonora (Madison Nonoa) sparkled with tenderness. And, when they were joined by mezzo Emily Kyte - who as Charles’s sister, Geneviève - added richness to the vocal textures, there was a beguiling fluidity about the trio ‘How long have we been in this house?’ - the text of which complements the musical motions and motivic recollections of the passing years, and which was deftly interspersed with commonplaces about the children and other family concerns.

Carmen Artaza (Mother Bayard, Ermengarde), Lucy Anderson (Lucia), Eduard Mas Bacardit (Roderick II).jpgCarmen Artaza (Mother Bayard, Ermengarde), Lucy Anderson (Lucia), Eduard Mas Bacardit (Roderick II).

Eduard Mas Bacardit provided a welcome dash of conflict, as the rebellious Roderick II who rejects his heritage, scorns his expected assumption of a role in the family business, and resorts to drink to dispel the town’s dullness, eventually departing to seek a ‘town where something happens’. Carmen Artaza summoned a nobility beyond her years as Mother Bayard and touching poignancy in the final reflections of Cousin Ermengarde, whose extinguishing of the table-candles and slow, dignified exit turns off the light of life in the house of Bayard. Bertie Watson was a self-assured cousin Brandon.

Under conductor Dominic Wheeler’s guidance, Hindemith’s wind-based instrumentation chugged and rolled along cleanly and comfortably, and the tempi seemed apt for the unfolding conversational exchanges, though it was a pity that the English text was not uniformly articulated with clarity, given the unfamiliarity of the work and the significance of the minutiae of the dialogue. But, in general, the balance between pit and stage was satisfactory, and aided by Hindemith’s unusual scoring - bass clarinet, double bassoon, and tuba are added to the smallish chamber orchestra - which allows the voices to speak in the registral ‘gaps’.

The climax is a sextet which marks the arrival of World War One, and the departure of young soldier Sam to the battlefield and, we understand, as he traverses the ‘exit’ passageway, to his death. ‘We talk of the weather’ the Bayards sing, for Sam has asked his family to enact a ‘normal’ Christmas Day gathering, so that the family customs and rituals can be implanted in his memory.

I appreciate that the young singers all need their chance to shine, but it seems odd that the creators’ blurring of the distinctions between characters across the generations - which emphasises genealogical linearity, and is supported by musical restatement and recollection - was not respected; in that Alexandra Lowe, who impressed in the role of Lucia, did not then reappear as ‘Lucia II’, her own grand-daughter, subsequently - the latter role being taken by Lucy Anderson. Given that the pair swap roles for two of the four performances, this seems an opportunity missed. In contrast, Lucia I’s husband Roderick - sung with passion by Michael Vickers - also fervently inhabited his grandson Sam’s shoes, fixing his family in his mind with in a soaring avowal, ‘I shall hold this tight! I shall remember you so!’, as Lucy Anderson interruptted his present-memory with her lament, ‘He was only a boy.’

In many ways, Hindemith’s opera is a good choice for a student company as the roles and cameos are of equal weight and presence. But, Ashley Dean’s production feels - unlike Hindemith’s bottom-heavy scoring, which skips with surprising lightness - a little too worthy and solemn; surely the nostalgic reminiscences should be inflected with both joy and pathos? Here the pace and palette were rather uniform.

But, after the heaviness of the first course, Sir Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement provided a dessert flavoured with panache and piquancy. Composed for the 1954 Aldeburgh Festival, Berkeley’s satirical comedy of manners - G&S meets P.G. Wodehouse by way of Wilde and Waugh, with a sprinkling of Mitford - is a delightful tale of financial hard times among the aristocracy and mishaps with the Aga, with a dash of acidity to temper the frothy frivolousness.

Both Berkeley’s score and Paul Dehn’s libretto owe much to Britten. The opening trio, ‘Salt, pepper, olive oil’, as the beleaguered delivery boy (an ardently indignant, long-haired Filipe Manu in flares and eye-popping shirt) drops off his wares at the down-at-heel Dunmows’ kitchen, put me in mind of the ‘Cooks’ Duet’ from Paul Bunyan. And, the spirit of Albert Herring looms large - not least because Berkeley’s text-setting is so obviously Britten-inspired, and the orchestration for wind quintet, harp, percussion, string quartet, double bass, and piano recalls those early EOG scores, Lucretia and Herring. But the score is spiced with hints of Stravinsky and Berkeley’s French peers, Honegger, Poulenc, Ravel - and one’s taste-buds are tickled by the gustatory richness.

I have seen this opera performed live only once before, at Wexford in 2012 , but this production immediately reminded me why I had enjoyed it so much on that occasion. It’s an inconsequential bon-bon with a tangy after-taste, presenting the desperate endeavours of an impoverished aristocratic couple to save their financial bacon by using gastronomic guile to lure a European prince to marry their daughter. Chisholm recreates a 1970s kitchen, filling in two sides of the rectangular frame, with gleeful realism: and the Mozartian ensembles tumble by in a spirit of controlled chaos.

Lucy Anderson (The Countess of Dunmow), Filipe Manu (An Errand Boy), Samuel Carl (The Earl of Dunmow).jpgLucy McAuley (The Grand Duchess), Filipe Manu (An Errand Boy), Samuel Carl (The Earl of Dunmow).

The cast certainly relished the social comedy and caricature. Every time Zoe Drummond’s recalcitrant Susan appeared, dressed in denim dungarees, then lime-green floaty monstrosity, and finally drab brown mini-dress, I could not help but smile. Her soprano floated effortlessly, a souffle of freedom in contrast to the stew of panic around her.

Samuel Carl affirmed his theatrical credentials at the recent Kathleen Ferrier Award Final , and he stepped into the dogged Lord Dunmow’s rather scuffed shoes with aplomb, reminiscing wistfully about former, more prosperous times, when he was Minister Plenipotentiary to the Duchy of Monteblanco, in the opening aria ‘In the Summer of my Time’. Carl and Lucy Anderson (the Countess of Dunmow) made a vocally fetching and dramatically sympathetic pair, singing and acting with confidence and command - even when in ‘Prenez six Belles Tomates’ when they were required to sing and chop vegetables with equal abandon.

Emily Kyle demonstrated terrific comic nous as Mrs Kneebone, the kitchen help who mistakes the front door for the servants’ entrance and who seems more of a hindrance until she, miraculously (how?!), ensures that ‘dinner is served!’. Lucy McAuley’s bejewelled Grand Duchess, entering via the larger back door, was magnificently nonplussed as only the ‘true’ aristocracy can be: how clever the Dunmows are to have decorated their dining room to resemble a twee kitchen! Eduard Mas Bacardit, dapperly attired in military dress, allowed the cookery-obsessed Prince Philippe’s growing interest to burgeon vocally, as he realised that Susan was not at all the sort of society girl he was used to meeting, and was more than ready to debate the required proportions of mustard seed to pickled walnut in a rapturous duet.

Eduard Mas Bacardit (Prince Philippe), Zoe Drummond (Susan).jpgEduard Mas Bacardit (Prince Philippe), Zoe Drummond (Susan).

This was controlled riotousness at its best, but while Mrs Kneebone’s announcement that dinner was on the table brought a sigh of relief, I couldn’t quite suppress a lingering feeling that these talented singers deserved some rather more meaty fare to get their teeth into.

Claire Seymour

Paul Hindemith: The Long Christmas Dinner

Lucia - Alexandra Lowe, Mother Bayard/Ermengarde - Carmen Artaza, Roderick/Sam - Michael Vickers, Brandon - Bertie Watson, Charles - Frederick Jones, Geneviève - Emily Kyte, Leonora - Madison Nonoa, Nurse - Meriel Cunningham, Lucia II - Lucy Anderson, Roderick II - Eduard Mas Bacardit.

Sir Lennox Berkeley: A Dinner Engagement

The Earl of Dunmow - Samuel Carl, Errand Boy - Filipe Manu, Mrs Kneebone - Emily Kyte, The Countess of Dunmow - Lucy Anderson, Susan - Zoe Drummond, Prince Philippe - Eduard Mas Barcardit, the Grand Duchess - Lucy McAuley.

Director - Ashley Dean, Conductor - Dominic Wheeler, Designer - Cordelia Chisholm, Lighting designer - Kevin Treacy, Costume designer - Laura Jane Stanfield, Movement director - Victoria Newlyn, Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Silk Street Theatre, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London; Monday 4 th June 2018.