Paul Dehn, Lennox Berkeley
Manchester Opera Ensemble
Manchester Central Library
19 December 2017 to 20 December 2017
Manchester Opera Ensemble is an enterprising small company of young professionals at or near the beginning of their careers, and for this production they gave Lennox Berkeley’s 1954 one-acter, A Dinner Engagement. In Manchester Central Library’s ‘performance space’ which is small, on one level and offers a large room with lights but not many more aids to theatre, I would have called it semi rather than fully staged, but there was an ingeniously collected set of props.
It’s a comedy of manners set in its own post-Second-World-War time, with some affinity to Albert Herring (it was first performed by Britten’s English Opera Group at the Aldeburgh Festival) or A Hand of Bridge. We are in the home of impoverished minor English aristocracy, the Earl and Countess of Dunmow, and their daughter Susan. Lord Dunmow once held a diplomatic post in the Grand Duchy of Monteblanco, and the Grand Duchess is going to call with her eligible son, Philippe. The object of the exercise is to impress her (and him) without letting on just how strapped for cash the Dunmows really are. But young Philippe has no taste for frippery but is a culinary expert, and in the event Susan and he get on so well in the kitchen that everything turns out fine despite the chaotic development of the planned banquet.
Performing it is like a combination of Masterchef and a vocal masterclass, and in both aspects the MOE performers were excellent. The music is melodious and warmly tonal, and though it does demand quality singers it’s a delight to listen to, even with piano accompaniment. The amount of cutting and chopping, cheese grating and lobbing tomatoes around the room that they achieved, while singing at the same time, was truly impressive.
I found every one of them a pleasure to hear, almost too powerful in some cases for such a small room. David Cane and Juliet Montgomery were the Earl and Countess, Léonie Maxwell was Susan, Lucy Vallis the Grand Duchess, Christopher Littlewood Prince Philippe – and particularly striking was the quality of singing in the two relatively minor roles of Mrs Kneebone, the neighbour who comes to help out with the cooking (Ingvild Schultze-Florey), and the Errand Boy who keeps trying to get the Dunmows to pay their debts (John Wood).
Charlotte Broadbent directed, and Ewan Gilford was musical director and accompanist.
Reviewer: Robert Beale