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Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
The Dancing Master, Op.34 (1952)
Eleanor Dennis (soprano) - Miranda
Catherine Carby (mezzo-soprano) - Prue
Fiona Kimm (contralto) – Mrs Caution
Ed Lyon (tenor) -Gerard
Mark Wilde (tenor) – Monsieur
Graeme Broadbent (bass-baritone) - Diego
BBC Concert Orchestra/John Andrews
rec. January 2020, Watford Colosseum
Text included
RESONUS RES10269 [75:40]

Even the most hard-core Arnoldian would probably fail to recognise the title of this work, a one-act opera of 1952 that was intended for television production. It’s been barely written about and didn’t receive a staged performance in the composer’s lifetime, though shortly before his death he did hear a studio performance conducted by James Holmes. After his breakdown in 1950 he resumed the rapid composition that had marked the earlier period and produced, in 1951, the two sets of English Dances, two sonatinas, an overture, Piano Duet concerto and the symphonic work Machine. The following year he produced even more music so that the non-appearance of the opera was a small blip on his way to greater compositional eminence.

The libretto was written by Joe Mendoza, also known as a filmmaker, and was based on William Wycherley’s 1671 play The Gentleman Dancing Master. Mendoza had already crafted a script of it for a projected film starring Margaret Lockwood, but the film was never made so the resulting libretto was the more easily adapted. True to form, but fast even by his frantic standards, Arnold wrote the opera in two weeks flat. It didn’t help. The BBC rejected it for television performance noting that it was ‘too bawdy for family audiences.’ The censorious nature of this criticism must surely point to a moral nervousness. The work may have its Carry On moments but it’s hardly a Lawrentian sex fest and its absorption of standard Restoration Romp elements hardly distinguished it from performances of the play on stage. The distinction clearly lies in the words ‘family audiences’ by which it can be inferred that the work failed to meet the BBC’s standards of propriety and risked exposing the ‘family’ to innuendo, mild smut and general shenanigans. After all, one chooses to go to the theatre but invites the BBC into one’s sitting room.

The world evoked is a comic one of fops and maids. A French-educated Monsieur – so absurd he has no name other than Monsieur - wishes to marry a heroine who prefers Gerard, her pretend ‘dancing master’. The farcical Restoration tropes lie thick, with much scheming, seduction attempts, identity changes and a fight scene. All, of course, ends well.

Arnold’s music hardly lets up, matching the Restoration scene with equal energy. Indeed, so vivacious is his scoring, so full of good tunes and colour, and so loud in places – Arnold keeps nothing back – that you will be swept along with the sheer vivacity of the 75-minute opera. Arnold utilises parlando and quick-fire patter, in the last part of the work deliberately, I’m sure, evoking G & S, and there are echoes of his orchestral music – in one of the early scenes, in track three, there are decided echoes of the English Dances – and it’s almost invariably the case that the orchestration itself is vividly sketched and busy. He also employs romantic writing too, as befits a love story, even a comic one, and pictorial devices – high winds enact ‘swallows’ for example in true avian style. The work’s many and varied buffo episodes draw from him appropriate responses; the Franglais of the Monsieur (a superbly characterful Mark Wilde) and the bullish gusto of Diego the Spaniard (Graeme Broadbent in prime operatic form) are painted in especially primary colours – Diego’s ‘catalogue aria’ of his many virtues, a song of self-glorification, is especially funny. The scenes in which the guitar is played, the role taken by the orchestral harp, allows moments of songful reprieve as well as provoking moments of mirth too, depending on the circumstances. But these is pathos too even in the case of the lover Gerard, whose moments of lovelorn romance are especially touching, even though there is really only one near fully rounded character, in the form of the heroine Miranda. This role is taken by Eleanor Dennis who navigates moments of ardour and exasperation with real acumen.

In a work such as this, operatic conventions are both honoured and genially subverted. The recitatives are varied, mock-solemn or droll, evocations of a Galliard appropriate and ridiculous. In the one scene where potential death lurks the orchestral tapestry frames the scene with pungent chords. Yet humour is everywhere and not of the forced variety when put over, as here, in so nuanced yet knowing a way. Is Arnold alluding to Berg’s Violin Concerto as the work draws to its conclusion – try track 19, see if you agree – though that may well be a private joke. The only difficulties are the big ensembles where it’s very difficult to follow what is being sung; their effectiveness lies in their busyness not their intelligibility, one feels. Or possibly the work hadn’t had the chance to be workshopped on stage, given there was no staging, and the only chance Arnold had to perform it was to bang out the music on the piano to duly unappreciative auditors.

Of the other characters the busy maid Prue is taken by a vivacious Catherine Carby and the voice of steadfast reserve, Mrs Caution, by Fiona Kimm. Both have time and space to mark their considerable marks. This is a true ensemble piece. The BBC Concert Orchestra fling themselves into their own roles, as the orchestra is a persona just as much as the singers, and John Andrews marshals the sometimes riotous music with a necessarily controlling force; doubtless his experience both in bel canto (there is a bit here) and British music generally went some way to equipping him to deal with Arnold’s non-stop panoply of orchestral colour and effects.

If you fancy a Restoration Ride from a symphonic master who ladles endless vivacity into his score, then don’t hold back: this is for you.

Jonathan Woolf

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