The Long Christmas Dinner
Lucia 1 & 2 Sophie Angebault
Mother Bayard / Ermengarde Tania Mandzy
Roderick 1 / Sam Nicholas Merryweather
Brandon Philip Gerrard
Charles Bragi Bergthórsson
Genevieve Chloé De Backer
Leonora Emily Rowley Jones
Roderick 2 Gareth Huw John
Nurse Seija Knight
A Dinner Engagement
The Earl of Dunmow Philip Spendley
The Countess of Dunmow Katrina Broderick
Susan Milda Smalakyte
Mrs Kneebone Chloé De Backer
HRH The Grand Duchess of Monteblanco Rebecca Raffell
HRH Prince Phillipe Gareth Huw John
Errand Boy Bragi Bergthórsson
William Kerley Director
Tom Rogers Designer
Matthew Eagland Lighting
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 4 November, 2006
Venue: Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London
Dinner as the subject for an opera is a conceit more frequently encountered in drama or film, making these works a natural pairing by dint of both being in one act as well as their proximity of composition.
Had he lived, Paul Hindemith would doubtless have written a companion piece to “The Long Christmas Dinner”: as it is, this collaboration with Thornton Wilder, written to an English text though premiered in the composer’s German translation at Mannheim in December 1961, remains an isolated though attractive footnote to a notable operatic career. Adapted and updated from Wilder’s eponymous 1933 play, the story concerns the Bayard family over four generations (and 90 Christmas dinners!) – in the process allowing for pertinent observations on the cultural and economic evolution of American society.
Short in duration, the opera unfolds at a gentle pace – thoughtfully underscoring characters whose personas are ciphers for the broader historical ‘picture’ being enacted. Especially interesting is that, when sung in the original English, the opera becomes a paradigm for mid-century American music: testimony to the influence Hindemith had on a whole generation of composers – even if that influence, so often begetting a craftsman-like if non-adventurous style, was essentially a negative one.
Hardly the fault of this piece, however, especially when realised with the ingenuity of William Kerley’s production. Against the backdrop of a typical mid-American home of the latter nineteenth-century, the singers converse around a dinner table that has the prominence but also unreality apposite to a drama in which a century is compressed into 47 minutes. The characters take their places at the table or in a wheelchair stage-right – a transit point for the ‘departure lounge’ opening-out at regular intervals under the stage. Vocally, Sophie Angebault was warmly understated as the two Lucias, with Nicholas Merryweather a humane Roderick and a gregarious Sam. Emily Rowley Jones was sympathetic as Leonora, belatedly making her escape from the house’s confines, while Tania Mandzy brought poignancyto the parts of Mother Bayard and Leonora: their solitary presence framing a drama into which the Nurse, being the angel both of life and death, emerges to mark off the remorseless tread of time.
The opera’s wistful sombreness would no doubt have been offset by the comedy Hindemith intended as its successor – but, in its absence, Lennox Berkeley’s “A Dinner Engagement” makes for an ideal companion. First staged at the Aldeburgh Festival in June 1954, this lively conversation-piece was no doubt a release after the weighty historical drama of “Nelson” three years earlier, and enables the composer to indulge his love of French neo-classicism on which he provides a very ‘English’ take.
Set to a libretto by Paul Dehn, the opera concerns the near-penniless Earl and Countess of Dunmow – desperate to make a good impression on their visiting – and wealthy! – relatives The Grand Duchess of Monteblanco and son Prince Philippe, in the hope the latter will marry their ‘difficult’ daughter Susan. The way that this comes about more by luck than judgement, with the adolescents drawn togetherthrough their mutual love of cookery, is the subject-matter of a drama whose deft domesticity is perfectly complemented by its music – witty yet resourceful in a way that Berkeley made his own.
Wholly of its era too – which is why Tom Rogers’s quintessentially 1950s’ kitchen décor, so redolent of the functional stylishness of post-austerity Britain, would be difficult to improve upon. Vocally, too, the cast is entirely in character: Philip Spendley the embodiment of the accident-prone but always well-meaning Earl, and Katrina Broderick equally fine as the dependable yet often despairing Countess; Rebecca Raffell a demonstrative but warm-hearted Grand Duchess, Gareth Huw John an awkward but likeable Philippe, and Milda Smalakyte giving her all as the temperamental but ultimately likeable Susan.
As with the Hindemith, Alexander Ingram keeps the drama moving, with excellent playing from the orchestra – not least in the woodwind writing that gives the opera its aura of sophisticated divertissement. Regularly revived though it is, the piece can rarely have been more vividly or entertainingly rendered.
A highly appropriate and successful double-bill, then, which adds to the Guildhall School’s deserved reputationfor quality opera productions.
- This review is of the second night; the first night was on 2 November
- Further performances on 6 & 8 November
- Tickets from Barbican Box Office – 0845 120 7500