Although Paul Hindemith’s The Long Christmas Dinner (1963) and Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement (1954) both concern that most auspicious of meal times, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama delineates the differences between the two works well to generate an evening of substantial, not to mention delightful, contrasts.
The Long Christmas Dinner, based on Thornton Wilder’s eponymous play and presented here in its original English version, tells the story of the mid-western Bayard family who every year sit down for Christmas dinner. In this way, the scarcely hour long opera covers 90 years as we see Mother Bayard and then others die, and children born who subsequently grow up and suffer their own fates. In the midst of this, Hindemith’s score, which contrasts brooding and fluttering lines, is paradoxical. On the one hand, its meditative tone seems at odds with the way in which it tears through time in the blink of an eye. On the other, once we have hooked into the overall speed at which events unfold, the music proves perfectly suited to capturing their smooth flow. This is because the Christmasses we see follow one after the other with no obvious alterations in scene, so that the continuous stream of change becomes the entity in its own right.
Ashley Dean’s staging is brilliant as it presents a dinner table that constantly revolves, thus signifying the passing of time. The only points at which it comes to a temporary halt are when a character proclaims that they wish the moment could last forever. Cordelia Chisholm’s minimalist set sees entrances via gangways to the left and right, so that people die simply by exiting stage left. The living enter and exit from the back, and whenever a new child arrives a pram is wheeled on from the side and then off the back of the stage, with the repetition of this move signifying the cyclical nature of the various births. However, when one pram is wheeled off stage left this reveals how the child tragically died in infancy.
Although the opera is short, it places quite unique demands on the singers because it does not contain arias in which soloists can really lose themselves as they present their own interpretation. Rather, all of the singing is geared towards furthering a narrative, with the emphasis being on each principal fitting in with an overarching concept as they often sing in trios, or even as part of a sextet. The emphasis is therefore on precision and blending, and the cast acquits itself extremely well, with particular accolades going to Carmen Artaza as Mother Bayard and Frederick Jones as her grandson Charles.
Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement, with libretto by Paul Dehn, is a lighter affair that focuses on the now broke Lord and Lady Dunmow. With their glory days firmly behind them, they attempt to marry their daughter Susan to the wealthy Prince Philippe by impressing him and his mother, The Grand Duchess of Monteblanco, with a dinner party. However, Susan resents being treated as a pawn and everything goes wrong when Lord and Lady Dunmow, who have to do the cooking themselves because they cannot afford full-time staff, burn the food.
The jokes revolve around class, and people giving themselves airs and graces, while hilarity also ensues from the topsy-turvy house having a back door that is larger than its front. This leads to the hired help Mrs Kneebone entering, to her own embarrassment, through the front door when she intended to use the tradesmen’s entrance. Conversely, the Grand Duchess comes through the back and is delighted to discover that the room in which she is welcomed has been made up to look exactly like a kitchen (because it is one). Things resolve themselves, however, when, left alone, Susan and Philippe discover that they really do get on well. Meanwhile, The Grand Duchess, far from being put off by the family’s tenuous financial position, seems to delight in the eccentricity they show as they try to muddle through, and proclaims that Susan will bring new blood to the dynasty.
This opera utilises the same set as the first, but looks totally different because this time the basic structure is decked out as a kitchen, with the detail shown in the smoking oven and shelves of crockery being quite astonishing. The scene also opens with a revolving table, but while before this signified the passing of time, here its more rapid movement helps to generate the sense of a madcap scenario. There is plenty of humour, especially in Emily Kyte’s beautifully comic performance as Mrs Kneebone. At the same time, the interaction between Zoe Drummond’s Susan and Edward Mas Bacardit’s Philippe in their scene alone together is extremely natural and moving. One can really feel the senses of relief and release when, after everything having seemingly gone wrong, both discover that the other is actually a very kind and understanding person.
The singing is strong across the board, with Mas Bacardit’s tenor having a dream-like quality, Lucy Anderson as the Countess of Dunbow demonstrating impressive control over her soprano, and Samuel Carl as The Earl of Dunmow displaying a powerful bass-baritone and strong penchant for comic timing. Dominic Wheeler’s conducting of the orchestra is also excellent throughout the evening.
Casts vary over the run. For further details visit the Guildhall School of Music and Drama website.