Buxton International Festival – Malcolm Arnold’s The Dancing Master

The Dancing Master, Op.34 – Opera in one act to a libretto by J. H. Mendoza after William Wycherley’s The Gentleman Dancing Master [sung in English with side-titles]

Miranda – Eleanor Dennis
Prue – Catherine Carby
Mistress Caution – Fiona Kimm
Gerard – David Webb
Monsieur – Mark Wilde
Don Diego – Graeme Broadbent

Northern Chamber Orchestra
John Andrews

Susan Moore – Director and designer
Ben Pickersgill – Lighting designer

4 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 9 July, 2021
Venue: Buxton Opera House, Buxton, Derbyshire

How times change! Malcolm Arnold’s opera, The Dancing Master, was intended for broadcast on BBC television in 1952 but was dropped because its adaptation of a racy Restoration play by William Wycherley was regarded as too bawdy. Needless to say, to audiences in 2021 witnessing this first professional performance in Britain, after successive waves of liberalising social attitudes, not to mention the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship powers, Joe Mendoza’s libretto will now appear rather tame with innuendos and double entendres more subtle, perhaps, but more-limp than any ‘Carry On’ film. The resulting work transcends such smutty voyeurism however, not least as it ironically references some other stories in the theatrical canon about love, lust, and fidelity, both serious and comic: a brief episode concerning a misplaced handkerchief must surely hint at Othello; a discarded casket of linen suggests Falstaff; whilst Gerard’s list of his own amorous conquests comprises his own ‘Catalogue’ Aria which, in Don Giovanni, we only hear through the mouth of his servant Leporello. Furthermore, what the prudish mindset of the 1950s – or, at any rate, its moral guardians – failed to appreciate is that, through all the ribaldry, the story ultimately sees virtue triumph as we are led to believe that Gerard, the rake, becomes a reformed character once Miranda accepts his advances.

If anything could offend a 21st-century audience, or at least make it wince, it might be the caricatures of perceived French and Spanish qualities in the roles of, respectively, the French educated Monsieur – intended by her father to be wed to Miranda – and that father himself, who has obsessively taken on an Iberian persona as ‘Don Diego’. True, these depictions may have been meant as vehicles to satirise these affected characters of the drama, who, in their turn, impliedly take a swipe at the provincialism, anti-cosmopolitanism of English society (maybe, in the wake of Brexit, not that much has changed after all). But to make this point, in relation to the puritanical outlook of Miranda’s aunt, Mrs Cautious, the work may have been more culturally sensitive.  Another problem for contemporary audiences may be the patriarchal manner in which Don Diego unilaterally intends to dispose of his daughter in marriage, without reference to her wishes, but one has to accept that as a given of 17th-century conventions, with Wycherley’s play as the underlying source of the drama. In any case, as in many such comedies, the feminist cause is bolstered by the clever actions of Miranda, as the central female character, along with her sidekick, in this instance her maid, Prue, who use various wiles to get around the men’s domineering. Eleanor Dennis’s expressive performance as Miranda – whether in sorrow at her imminent marriage with the absurd fop, Monsieur, or firmness of purpose as she entertains the attentions of the handsome Gerard – winningly conveys her irrepressible spirit. Catherine Carby is similarly sprightly as Prue, as she thinks ahead to assist Miranda out of her troubles when Don Diego returns homes and seeks to find out the truth about Gerard, who is introduced to her father as her dancing master.

Necessarily limited by Covid restrictions, Susan Moore’s production presents the opera in the theatre as though it were itself a radio broadcast, just as the work was intended not for the stage in the first instance, but to be performed at one remove via television. Even with social distancing measures, the action could be somewhat more adventurous, but there is still some affectionate sending up of the theatricality of what might have been even a radio performance, as the characters – in 1950s’ costume, contemporary with the composition of the opera – assemble around the microphone, and alternately proceed to a second microphone to make various sound-effects; the mimicking of kissing is particularly amusing. The singers seem to make a particular point to declaim their parts clearly and eloquently, emphasising the fact that as a radio broadcast in this production, the characters have to delineate their roles more distinctly through their (sung) text than their action. That is especially so with the larger-than-life characters – Mark Wilde’s effusive Monsieur, Graeme Broadbent’s comically, darkly stern Don Diego, and Fiona Kimm’s frumpish, Lady Bracknell-esque Mrs Caution, all teetering on the edge of musical caricature, but hamming up their performances in a manner that updates the affectations of the Restoration era. David Webb reveals a lyrically romantic streak in Gerard, imparting the easygoing charm of a character from a musical perhaps, which Arnold’s score verges on at times.

John Andrews leads the Northern Chamber Orchestra in a poised but playful account of the music, which is tuneful and colourful. The one to a part ensemble becomes virtually a role in the drama itself with its busy interplay of sonorities – notably from the percussion – but it allows Don Diego, Monsieur, and Gerard to come to the fore in their extended set pieces, the closest passages to arias in this continuous score and each, in some way, a parody. If not a work of genius, The Dancing Master is certainly a fluent, engaging composition, and this production bears lively testament to the eclectic and amenable accomplishments of Arnold in the centenary year of his birth. It could surely be taken up by other companies and presented alongside another one act opera for a satisfactory double bill.

Further performances on July 13, 16 & 22

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