Arnold and Mendoza, after Wycherley
Buxton International Festival
Buxton Opera House
July 9-22 2021, 1hr 20min
There was no doubt that Buxton Festival’s audience was glad to see it back in the glorious Peak District opera house, going by the applause for Malcolm Arnold’s The Dancing Master on Friday night.
Even an obligatory half-full house sounded like a capacity crowd at the conclusion of its interval-less performance.
Live opera! Yes, and necessity has become the mother of invention for the festival this year. How to find shows that can be performed by smallish casts on a smallish stage with smallish orchestra pit, keeping the performers and musicians suitably distanced from each other – and the audience – too?
Buxton had optional plans for the festival until quite late in the preparations this year: it had to, like everybody else in the arts recently. The chosen one has led it down the musicals road (and will again next year), joining the Opera House and CEO Paul Kerryson in its own production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. But for proper opera, in its tradition of shining light into little-seen corners that deserve discovery, its first offering for 2021 is quite a find.
We’re in Malcolm Arnold’s centenary year, and here’s one he wrote very early on. Rejected by the BBC (and Granada TV) and never professionally performed until this year, conductor John Andrews and his Red Squirrel Opera have already turned it into an award-winning recording. This production, directed and designed by Susan Moore (with lighting by Ben Pickersgill), puts the CD cast, with one exception, on the stage with Andrews conducting.
Seeing it now, you wonder why on earth the BBC’s panjandrums ever thought it “too bawdy”. The story is simple and based on stock characters from Restoration comedy: marriageable young heiress (Miranda) kept under close watch by her puritanical aunt while her father fandangoed in Spain, has been betrothed to her foppish and Frenchified cousin. She wants out and enlists the help of her maid, Prue. Along comes a young admirer, Gerard, who manages to climb in through her bedroom window.
Miranda pretends to her father that Gerard is her dancing teacher (though neither can dance a step), and fun and games ensue, with a romance between the two and a happy ending, since daddy (Don Diego) lets true love win and Monsieur (the fop) throws in his lot with the maid.
How do you stage that with all the limitations of summer 2021? Answer: do it on the radio!
Susan Moore has picked up on the BBC's lapse of judgment in 1951 and reimagined it as a radio broadcast like The Archers or ITMA, with the cast positioned around a central microphone and bits of the action illustrated by sound effects of the day.
That gives her staging the extra dimension of being able to show the actors arriving in civvies, picking up their scripts (I think the actual scores, but they didn’t need to read them) and getting into character for the piece, before they finally going off-air and reverting to themselves. Except you suspect the romance between “Miranda” and “Gerard” might be more than just play-acting...
Arnold poured his gifts for melody and atmospheric orchestration into this piece, and with the theme of dancing ever in the air, the rhythms are pretty snappy, too. There has to be a moral to the story, of course, quaintly expressed as a warning to parents not to try to restrain their children too much. And of course a final ensemble of general rejoicing, which Arnold rises to magnificently.
Further performances on 13, 16 and 22 July.
Ticket info here