Berkeley, L (A) Dinner Engagement
Fifty years ago in June A Dinner Engagement was premièred at the Aldeburgh Festival. It was written for Britten’s English Opera Group, suited their resources and philosophy admirably and was much admired by Britten himself. How could this jewel of a one-act comic opera have escaped the record catalogue for half a century? It has never lacked productions and has often been given by students, so its comparative neglect on disc can only be attributed to the problems of it being an unattached one-acter, although Lennox Berkeley wrote Castaway (Aldeburgh, 1967) to go with it.
The period is that of British kitchen-sink theatre in the 1950s but this kitchen is an aristocratic one. Lord and Lady Dunmow are in desperately reduced circumstances in a very small house. The Grand Duchess of Monteblanco, where Dunmow was Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary 25 years before, is coming to dinner and bringing her bachelor son, Prince Philippe. The Dunmows ardently hope that he might be interested in their daughter Susan, who at first seems sulky and contrary.
Paul Dehn’s libretto abounds in amusing incidents en route to a happy ending. There are two cockney characters – the errand boy, who demands to be paid at the most inconvenient moments, and Mrs Kneebone, the daily help who prides herself on having once served bridge teas for a Mrs Ellibanks in Wimbledon. Everything goes wrong over preparing the meal and smoke pours from the oven as the royal party arrives – to a fully worked-out fugue. The ingenious subtleties of the libretto – such as Dunmow translating the recipe from a French cookbook for Mrs Kneebone’s benefit – can be savoured with the full text provided. The attraction between the Prince and Susan develops during an argument about how much mustard to use for pickled walnuts, after which he discovers she is not a servant but the Dunmows’ daughter.
From the moment of her arrival the dominating character is the Grand Duchess. She sets the pace, appreciates the Dunmows’ problems and is ready to regard Susan’s beauty – in the absence of anything else – as her dowry, explaining that in royal circles it is so unusual for betrothed couples to know each other at all that a very short acquaintance is no obstacle to their union.
The layout of the opera is an impeccable blend of aria and recitative; the scoring is colourful and effective; and – what seems to have been missed in the first performances – the piece is full of memorable tunes.
Anne Collins as the Duchess is magnificent – I remember her broadcast performance 20 years ago; Claire Rutter as Susan is enchanting; Robin Leggate makes a mellifluously charming Prince. But this is an all-star cast and the Mozartian ensembles are scintillating. Once again enormous credit to Richard Hickox whose total understanding of Berkeley’s music gives him unrivalled authority in this long-delayed début. Well recorded, too.