Zips along with enormous vim: Malcolm Arnold's The Dancing Master reviewed

24 July 2021

9:00 AM

24 July 2021

9:00 AM

The Dancing Master; A Little Night Music; Cendrillon

Buxton International Festival, until 24 July

Malcolm Arnold composed his opera The Dancing Master in 1952 for BBC television. It never appeared, the problem being the source material — William Wycherley’s 1671 farce The Gentleman Dancing Master. Jokes about wedding nights and ‘scarlet foppery’ might have flown in the reign of Charles II but the New Elizabethans at Broadcasting House were altogether more shockable. ‘Too bawdy for family audiences,’ was Auntie’s official verdict, leaving The Dancing Master largely forgotten until a premiere recording late last year, and now — conducted by John Andrews and using almost the same cast — its first ever professional production, at the Buxton International Festival.

Clearly, there are historic debts to be settled here, which is handy because by the look of it social-distancing regulations scuppered any chance of a full-dress Restoration-era staging. Instead, director Susan Moore scrolls back to the point when everything went wrong and gives us an alternative timeline: a BBC radio studio in the early 1950s where a cast is performing the opera live on air. They cluster around the microphone, sipping tea from canteen crockery and nibbling on digestive biscuits. Moore has a grand time nailing her postwar thespian types: Graeme Broadbent is the ripe old stager in bow tie and waistcoat, Eleanor Dennis is the pert ingénue; and David Webb, all flannel slacks and brilliantine, plays a Dirk Bogarde-like matinée idol. Mark Wilde — as a spivvy, moustachioed comedian playing a Frenchman (or as Wycherley puts it, ‘a whimsical, gibbering snail-eater’) with all the ’Allo’ Allo! subtlety of old-school rep — comes close to bringing the house down.

It all zips along with enormous vim and if the staging isn’t what one might initially expect, it proves beyond doubt that Arnold’s music — delightful on record — really does work on stage too. More than that: it lights up and pings into focus. Passages that felt over long on disc skip by in the theatre, and set pieces (like Webb’s tenor love song ‘Over the Mountains and Over the Waves’) that sound attractive enough on the recording suddenly flush with emotion and soar out into the auditorium and into the memory. Periwigs and corsets can wait for future productions; after such spirited advocacy from Andrews, Moore and this bright-sounding ensemble cast, they surely can’t be long in coming.

Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, meanwhile, seems to be taking up permanent residence in the operatic repertoire — the most recent proof that if you leave a Broadway musical long enough, it turns into an operetta. This one always had a head start, with its waltz-saturated score, its Bergman-derived plot and its allusions to Mozart and Strauss (both Johann and Richard). Isn’t it rich, isn’t it queer — how such an artfully contrived musical comedy manages to be so funny, to hit its emotional beats so squarely and, of course, to generate such insidiously pointed melodies? ‘Remember?’ Like we have a choice.

The new Buxton revival plays out on a gleaming dance floor. Gauzes and birch trunks evoke the Swedish setting, constantly shifting as the characters blunder through their self-created maze of memories and white lies. Paul Kerryson’s production casts a mixture of operatic and music-theatre performers, with Janie Dee as a plain-singing, no-nonsense Desiree Armfeldt who gets her spotlit moment in ‘Send In the Clowns’ without overselling it — a thoroughly knowing foil for Daniella Sicari’s crystal-cut soprano as the unbearable child-bride Anne Egerman.

Kerryson plays the show as one great waltz (the choreographer is David Needham), with the characters spinning elegantly through their different pairings before landing gracefully, and right on cue, in the arms of the final bar. A quick word for the Northern Chamber Orchestra under Wyn Davies, and the tarnished silver string-tone and haunted woodwinds of Jonathan Tunick’s Ravel-inspired original orchestrations. I’d been dreading a keyboard-heavy Covid-era rescoring. This was a subtle and sophisticated treat.

A word too for Pauline Viardot’s Cendrillon, performed by a young cast (mostly drawn from the Royal Northern College of Music) in an inventive, pared-down staging by Laura Attridge that fitted this slight but lovely piece — created by one of the 19th century’s greatest singers as a salon divertissement and premièred in 1904 when she was 82 — well, like a silk slipper. The story is the familiar tale of Cinders (Nikki Martin), her fairy godmother (Pasquale Orchard) and her Prince Charming (Camilla Seale, in a trouser role), retold as an opéra comique in a sequence of couplets, waltz-songs and genuinely gorgeous ensembles. This is writing of transparent beauty and nostalgic warmth, so winningly sung that it would be unfair to single out any of the seven–strong cast if Martin hadn’t soared above the crowd with such poignant, spun-sugar clarity and sweetness. There was a capacity audience in the poky old Pavilion Arts Centre, and they just kept applauding.

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