It would have been advisable to watch this double bill of one act operason a full stomach, so frequent were the references to food but in everyother respect this was an extremely satisfying two course affair.
Paul Hindemith wrote The Long Christmas Dinner in 1960, and wasplanning a comedy to complement it but sadly died before having the chanceto finish it.
Happily Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement,composed six years earlier, fulfils the role unintentionally buteffortlessly.
Both operas have been recorded recently, with successful interpretationsfrom Marek Janowski and Richard Hickox respectively, but tomy knowledge this is the first time the two have appeared on the samebill.
Whereas Berkeley’s story takes place in real time, just under an hour,Thornton Wilder’s play as set by Hindemith looks at a family over ninetyyears of Christmas dinner in the same house. A bit filling, you mightthink, but the food is merely the supporting act to their development,examining also American social culture. As different heads of the tablecome and go, dispensing ‘the light meat or the dark’ of the Christmasturkey, the family experience both joy and tragedy.
Hindemith’s deftly scored music is perfect for the job, and refutes onceagain any allegations of a lack of emotion in his music, particularly whencharacterised as here by conductor Alexander Ingram. The centralcharacters were excellent, though a special mention should go to PhilipGerrard for a humorous but affecting portrayal of Brandon’s gradualdemise. Bragi Bergtharsson was a confident upstart as Charles, laterbecoming rather world weary and dependent on alcohol, while the soprano ofEmily Rowley Jones made a shrill impact as Leonora later on.
The wordless part for Seija Knight‘s Nurse proved to be every bitas dramatic, as she donned white angel wings to deliver the babies down acleverly arranged stairway from heaven, but was also on hand in black tolead the unfortunates away when their time had come.
After a moving finish (with colour emotively in short supply) theDinner Engagement proved far more frivolous, the stage coloured withbright reds and yellows against a chequered, draught board floor.
The libretto for Berkeley’s two scenes doubled as an examination ofsocial barriers, in this case their removal, and proved to be highlyamusing. Marc Scoffoni‘s bumbling Earl of Dunrow had strong supportfrom long suffering Countess Katrina Broderick, putting a brave faceand an exaggeration or two on their standing as an impoverished familywhile they tried to keep their unruly daughter Susan in check (a splendidlyfeisty Milda Smalakyte).
The couple were cooking (or attempting to cook) dinner for distinguishedroyalty, though the ‘help’ they received from stilted Cockney maid MrsKneebone (Chloe De Backer) wasn’t the sort you’d see on ReadySteady Cook!
A string of mishaps put the dinner in danger, and when the royal couplearrived with their designer labels an enjoyable chaos ensued, with thePrince and Susan striking an unexpected but affecting bond. Berkeley’smusic was at times tender and affecting, often humorous, though the scaleddown ensemble occasionally drowned the singers when playing at fullvolume.
All seven characters played out a riotous final scene, augmented byBergthorsson’s irate country bumpkin greengrocer, and the meal was finallyserved, the forks held in mid-air as the story finished, the lightness oftouch perfectly appropriate.
Performances, direction and lighting were all extremely fine, and it wasgood to see two hidden twentieth-century operas dusted down and restored tothe repertory.