Malcolm Arnold's one-act opera The Dancing Master caused a stir at the beginning of this year when conductor John Andrews and his newly-formed opera company Red Squirrel released the work's first recording. It was ecstatically received in many quarters, but here comes a dissenting view – Buxton Opera House, 9 July 2021.
Based on William Wycherley's Restoration comedy The Gentleman Dancing Master, it offers the usual shenanigans of young lovers outwitting parents/guardians. Composed in 1952, it was immediately offered to the BBC, then Granada Television, but it was turned down as 'too bawdy for family audiences'. Arnold put it aside and moved on. The Buxton production is its first professional staging.
Director and designer Susan Moore has set the action in a 1950s radio studio. We watch the cast assemble, settle in, scores in hand, and begin. Every so often one or other of them moves to the props table to make appropriate sound-effects, or goes to pour themselves another cup of tea.
In his note in the programme-book, Andrews rightly points to the opera's 'larger-than-life Restoration caricatures'. That's part of the trouble: caricatures can never be flesh-and-blood characters. But the hard-working singers, all but one of whom also appear on the recording, give it their best shot. Eleanor Dennis is both sympathetic and forceful as Miranda, an heiress trying to escape an unsuitable arranged marriage, though her voice is perhaps better suited to a larger space. Catherine Carby makes Prue, her maid, the most developed and most sympathetic character, but then, operatic handmaids often are. Fiona Kimm places Mistress Caution, Miranda's censorious aunt, in a direct line from Britten's Lady Billows. David Webb's pleasing tenor is just right for Gerard, who arrives to sweep Miranda off her feet, not before a nod to Leporello's Catalogue Aria as he flips the pages of his pocket book listing his former lovers. Mark Wilde trips an unctuous light fantastic as Monsieur, Mistress Caution's French-educated son, and the man Miranda is supposed to be marrying.
Her father, equally besotted by Spanish manners and calling himself Don Diego, also the radio show's producer, is played by Graeme Broadbent, channelling his inner Alistair Sim, complete with Sim's trade-mark hang-dog expression.
I've come to admire Malcolm Arnold's music increasingly over the years but, to judge from The Dancing Master, opera was not his natural medium. To be honest, it's largely the responsibility of Joe Mendoza's much-too-wordy libretto. I don't know how much of the original text was used, but a seasoned opera composer would surely have insisted on cutting a lot more. True, Arnold had a reputation for working quickly, but the fact that he dashed this off in just two weeks must say something. A television production of the play, as originally planned, with Arnold composing the incidental music, would surely have worked better. The fact that his film music career was in full flood at the time shows where his real dramatic talents lay. His orchestral writing is the opera's strong suit, richly inventive as always – including one theme that he also used for David Lean's 1953 film Hobson's Choice – and Andrews' conducting keeps it all sharply focused. But long-lost operatic masterpiece? Sadly, no.
Copyright © 20 July 2021