Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Long Christmas Dinner / A Dinner Engagement @ Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London

6 November 2006

The Long Christmas Dinner / A Dinner Engagement

The Long Christmas Dinner / A Dinner Engagement (Photo: Nobby Clark)

It would have been advisable to watch this double bill of one act operas on a full stomach, so frequent were the references to food – but in every other respect this was an extremely satisfying two course affair. Paul Hindemith wrote The Long Christmas Dinner in 1960, and was planning a comedy to complement it but sadly died before having the chance to finish it.

Happily Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement, composed six years earlier, fulfils the role unintentionally but effortlessly. Both operas have been recorded recently, with successful interpretations from Marek Janowski and Richard Hickox respectively, but to my knowledge this is the first time the two have appeared on the same bill.

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 ninety years of Christmas dinner in the same house. A bit filling, you might think, but the food is merely the supporting act to their development, examining also American social culture. As different heads of the table come and go, dispensing ‘the light meat or the dark’ of the Christmas turkey, the family experience both joy and tragedy.

Hindemith’s deftly scored music is perfect for the job, and refutes once again any allegations of a lack of emotion in his music, particularly when characterised as here by conductor Alexander Ingram. The central characters were excellent, though a special mention should go to Philip Gerrard for a humorous but affecting portrayal of Brandon’s gradual demise. Bragi Bergtharsson was a confident upstart as Charles, later becoming rather world weary and dependent on alcohol, while the soprano of Emily Rowley Jones made a shrill impact as Leonora later on.

The wordless part for Seija Knight’s Nurse proved to be every bit as dramatic, as she donned white angel wings to deliver the babies down a cleverly arranged stairway from heaven, but was also on hand in black to lead the unfortunates away when their time had come.

After a moving finish (with colour emotively in short supply) the Dinner Engagement proved far more frivolous, the stage coloured with bright reds and yellows against a chequered, draught board floor.

The libretto for Berkeley’s two scenes doubled as an examination of social barriers, in this case their removal, and proved to be highly amusing. Marc Scoffoni’s bumbling Earl of Dunrow had strong support from long suffering Countess Katrina Broderick, putting a brave face and an exaggeration or two on their standing as an impoverished family while they tried to keep their unruly daughter Susan in check (a splendidly feisty Milda Smalakyte).

The couple were cooking (or attempting to cook) dinner for distinguished royalty, though the ‘help’ they received from stilted Cockney maid Mrs Kneebone (Chloe De Backer) wasn’t the sort you’d see on Ready Steady Cook.

A string of mishaps put the dinner in danger, and when the royal couple arrived with their designer labels an enjoyable chaos ensued, with the Prince and Susan striking an unexpected but affecting bond. Berkeley’s music was at times tender and affecting, often humorous, though the scaled down ensemble occasionally drowned the singers when playing at full volume.

All seven characters played out a riotous final scene, augmented by Bergthorsson’s irate country bumpkin greengrocer, and the meal was finally served, the forks held in mid-air as the story finished, the lightness of touch perfectly appropriate.

Performances, direction and lighting were all extremely fine, and it was good to see two hidden twentieth-century operas dusted down and restored to the repertory.

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The Long Christmas Dinner / A Dinner Engagement @ Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London