Peter Dickinson introduces this rare stage work ahead of its Dorset premiere
The amazingly enterprising Dorset Opera is at last doing justice to the only opera by a unique figure in British music – Lord Berners, the composer, writer, painter and eccentric who died in 1950. His comic opera Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement is based on a story by Prosper Mérimée which was also used by Offenbach in his La Périchole.
In Lima, Peru, in the mid-19th century, the cantankerous Viceroy [Graeme Danby] suffers from gout. His mistress is the actress, La Périchole [Josephine Thorpe], but he is jealous because she’s rumoured to be sharing her favours with a bull-fighter. The Viceroy gets one up by donating to her his new carriage just sent from Madrid and allows her to be driven to mass in it on her own. Then things go hilariously wrong and the precious carriage is involved in a collision. Finally La Périchole and the Bishop [John Brice] come to see the Viceroy and tell him that, after seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary, she has magnanimously decided to donate her carriage to the church to take communion to the sick and dying. As a result the Viceroy’s gout is miraculously cured and La Périchole herself is – naturally – assured of eternal life.
The first production was in 1924 at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, conducted by Ernest Ansermet. The opera is in eight continuous scenes and The Times called it ‘an unqualified success…unalloyed entertainment…only the fact that it leaves no opening for applause, that it flows on, sustaining, illustrating, emphasising the text with unflagging wit…prevented the work from being interrupted several times by appreciative cheers.’ As Berners’ novels show, he was fascinated by people behaving badly so this story suited him. In keeping with the setting, the music – light and amusing – has a Spanish flavour as well as Berners’ favourite waltz rhythms.
Berners began as an avant-garde composer, writing some of the most progressive and dissonant music by any British composer at that time, when he was attached to the British Embassy in Rome during and just after the First World War. When he inherited the title in 1918, he spent more time in England and after the opera turned to ballet. Of his five ballets two were choreographed by Balanchine and three by Frederick Ashton – pretty impressive – and The Triumph of Neptune and A Wedding Bouquet have featured regularly over the years at Covent Garden, the former recorded by Beecham twice.
Thanks to the work of the Berners Trust, everything Berners wrote is now on CD, with three separate versions of his songs and piano music alone. Le Carrosse is available on Marco Polo (8.223780), with libretto, the BBC recording made for the Berners centenary in 1983.
Dorset Opera has been hailed by Opera Now as ‘consistently on a par with the UK’s five main opera companies’ so their take on Berners’ comedy will undoubtedly be impressive. The director is Paul Carr and Dorset Opera Orchestra is conducted by Jeremy Carnall.
For more about Berners see Mark Amory: Lord Berners, The Last Eccentric; Peter Dickinson: Lord Berners, Composer, Writer, Painter; and the Collected Tales and Fantasies as well as plenty of single stories available very cheaply through Amazon.
Catch Berners' Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement in a double-bill with Puccini's Suor Angelica at Coade Theatre, Bryanston School, Blandford Forum, Dorset on July 26 and 28 at 7pm.
Box office: 01202 499199 or visit the Dorset Opera website