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 Lennox Berkeley [Photo © Colin Busby courtesy of G. Schirmer]
22 Apr 2011

A Dinner Engagement

Trust Winnipeg’s resourceful Little Opera Company to come up with a little known, yet charmingly entertaining spring production.

Lennox Berkeley: A Dinner Engagement, Op. 45 (1954)

Little Opera Company (Winnipeg), Salle Martial Caron, April 8 & 9,2011

Above: Lennox Berkeley [Photo © Colin Busby courtesy of G. Schirmer]


The sixteen-year-old company that exclusively showcases local talent staged British 20th century composer Lennox Berkeley’s one act comic opera A Dinner Engagement to the delight of an appreciative audience.

The story centres around an English family, Lord and Lady Dunmow, played by baritone Michael Dunbar and soprano Margot Harding, who have fallen on hard financial times in the 1920s. They have their sights set on marrying off their daughter Susan (wonderful young soprano Deanna Smith) to HRH Prince Phillipe (tenor Michael Au) who is coming to dinner with his mother, the Grand Duchess of Monteblanco, portrayed by mezzo soprano Elizabeth Rotoff.

We first meet Lord Dunmow in the kitchen, an authentically detailed set with everything from a cast iron stove to jars of preserved fruit. The bumbling Dunmow endeavours to follow a recipe in preparation for his dinner guests. Reminiscing about better times, his full-bodied baritone voice is wistfully expressive in the bittersweet “In the Summer of my Time.” On a few occasions, however, his voice seemed to fail him, due to support issues. And despite his culinary ineptness, one still wishes he would pronounce the herb ‘rosemary,’ instead of ‘Rose Marie,’ like the 60s comedienne.

Harding, as his wife, has the ability to light up a stage whenever she appears. Commanding and stylish, she has a reliable and powerful voice, with a fresh, rich tone. And with her impressive acting ability, Harding is the full package.

Veteran mezzo Linda de Pauw played Mrs. Kneebone, the kitchen help, with true comic flair. Her diction was clear and precise, although the Cockney accent drifted in and out.

The Dunmows and Kneebone were hilarious in “Prenex six Belles Tomates,” cooking up a storm, chopping vegetables crazily as stems and bits flew around the room.

Smith was a breath of fresh air as Susan, her pretty, refined voice seeming to float to the highest notes without a trace of effort. With a pure, crystal clear tone and delicate lightness to her voice she was the highlight of the production.

Enter Rotoff, brilliantly haughty and convincingly statuesque as the Duchess, and Au, as Phillipe, dressed in a dapper suit. Au has a solid, powerful voice, but he struggled with some of the difficult intervals in “Mon aimée attend la lune,” going out of tune and sounding constricted in his upper register. He also tended to employ the princely accent inconsistently. His acting, on the other hand, was well suited to this comic style, as he gazed dreamily at Susan with puppy dog eyes.

Tenor Darryl Brunger had a small role as the delivery man, appearing twice demanding money. His first effort was secure, with pleasing tone quality, but when he returned the second time, his intonation faltered.

Michael McKay did a fine job accompanying the entire show on piano and creative lighting eliminated the need for scene changes. Flowers projected on the backdrop while lowering the lighting on the overall set effectively moved us into the garden. Very smart!

Berkeley’s score doesn’t offer us much in the way of tunefulness, and all dialogue (lyrics by Paul Dehn) is sung, requiring much abandonment of disbelief from the audience.

But this was obviously a labour of love for all involved and the result was a nice little (one-hour) opera confection that brightened a rainy evening.

Gwenda Nemerofsky

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