Lennox Berkeley – A Dinner Engagement & Ruth (28 September)

Lennox Berkeley
A Dinner Engagement

Cast for A Dinner Engagement

The Earl of Dunmow – Roderick Williams
The Countess of Dunmow – Yvonne Kenny
Susan – Claire Rutter
Mrs Kneebone – Jean Rigby
The Grand Duchess – Anne Collins
Prince Phillipe – Robin Leggate
Errand Boy – Blake Fischer

Cast for Ruth

Ruth – Jean Rigby
Head Reaper – Roderick Williams
Naomi – Yvonne Kenny
Boaz – Mark Tucker
Orpah – Claire Rutter
The Joyful Company of Singers

City of London Sinfonia
Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 28 September, 2003
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

This operatic double-bill, presented by the Park Lane Group and the City of London Sinfonia to mark the centenary of Lennox Berkeley’s birth, afforded a timely opportunity to sample his work in the dramatic field and perhaps ponder his contribution to it.

Whilst A Dinner Engagement has been on the periphery of the repertoire since its 1954 Aldeburgh premiere, Ruth has all but disappeared from it. A pity that, given the occasion and anniversary, none of Berkeley’s operas has been granted a staging, but these well-cast concert performances made some amends.

A Dinner Engagement is an immensely attractive piece. Light-hearted and not taking itself too seriously, it is in the nature of a divertissement. It is also very much in the mould of Britten’s Albert Herring, sharing with that masterpiece some perceptive character depiction and sly musical allusion (its orchestration is identical), although it would not be proper to place Berkeley’s opera on the same level as Britten’s.

An aristocratic pair – down on their luck for reasons not stated – are determined to see their daughter wed into a wealthy family. As luck would have it, the Grand Duchess of Monteblanco and her wife-seeking son arrive and, after mistaking Susan for a servant, the two are betrothed. Although too youthful in appearance, Roderick Williams gleefully depicted The Earl of Dunmow vocally, with commendably clear enunciation, and he and Yvonne Kenny sparred with each other in a most engaging way.

As their rather recalcitrant daughter, Claire Rutter was fresh in tone and lively in character, the latter a trait shared by Jean Rigby. But the star turn was unquestionably Anne Collins as a gorgon with a heart of gold, relishing the text and dominating her scenes appropriately and magnificently. Her grandiloquent cry of “Europe” as her address in response to the question as to where to send the grocery bill was hilarious. Blake Fischer made his mark as the Errand Boy and Robin Leggate was eloquently lyrical as Susan’s wooer.

The City of London Sinfonia played superbly, with both wit and refinement, but a lighter touch from the podium would have lent the performance greater sparkle. Hickox’s rather po-faced direction occasionally put a damper on proceedings.

Ruth is a less immediately appealing, and seems to share the fate of many an English composer’s predilection for tackling biblical subjects by wearing heavy garments of sackcloth and ashes. Granted, this is not a merry yarn, and perhaps suffered by being performed directly after the frolics of A Dinner Engagement. The libretto is too stilted and earnest for its own good – surprising as it comes from the pen of Eric Crozier who wrought wonders for Britten – not least in Albert Herring.

To be sure there are some intense and powerful passages, though Ruth herself is curiously under-characterised, musically speaking, finely and expressively though Jean Rigby sang the role. She replaced Pamela Helen Stephen.

The most striking character is Naomi, the mother-in-law of Orpah and Ruth. Yvonne Kenny was both fervent and tender, even if her diction was a little cloudy on occasions. Roderick Williams again impressed and Mark Tucker, if not ideally free at the top of his range, was ardent in expression.

The chorus (fine and confident singing from The Joyful Company of Singers) has a prominent part to play, though their hay-making choruses seemed to hail from Somerset rather than the Middle East, with the impending feeling that a jolly English maypole-style glee was about to burst forth.

The orchestration is more monochrome than in A Dinner Engagement, with only a pair of flutes, a horn and percussion supplementing strings and piano. The somewhat unvaried sonority of the latter combination began to grate after a while, and I couldn’t help thinking that a larger body of strings would have made the scoring sound less effortful.

Nevertheless, with a committed cast and strong playing, this performance made a good case for the work. Chandos recorded both operas prior to the concert. I look forward to the CDs in due course.

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