The Dancing Master

Malcolm Arnold
Early Opera Company
Buxton Opera House

David Webb (Gerard), Eleanor Dennis (Miranda) and Graeme Broadbent (Don Diego) Credit: Genevieve Girling
Graeme Broadbent (Don Diego) Credit: Genevieve Girling
Catherine Carby (Prue), Mark Wilde (Monsieur) and Graeme Broadbent (Don Diego) Credit: Genevieve Girling

It’s an oft-repeated story about Malcolm Arnold’s opera The Dancing Master that the BBC rejected it because it was ‘too bawdy’. It doesn’t seem particularly bawdy, unfortunately, but even allowing for stuffy 1952 attitudes at the broadcaster, I wonder if that was the whole story.

The plot, taken from William Wycherley’s play of 1671, concerns the heiress Miranda who wants to avoid marrying her cousin, the English but Frenchified Monsieur. Caught with the rake Gerard, she and her scheming maid pass him off as her dancing master, fooling her father, her aunt Mistress Caution and her son, Monsieur, who thinks this is a prank to humiliate Gerard, not himself.

Arnold knocked off the score in a fortnight, without any further involvement from the librettist, Joe Mendoza, a studio scriptwriter. When it was rejected, the composer had plenty of other work to get on with—11 film scores that year—and he left it alone.

Had the project gone ahead, I’m sure he would have revised both words and music. The original score is for a large orchestra, so it is hard to judge the Buxton version with just 12 players (including just two brass instead of 11 and a string quintet), but the piece sounded incomplete.

At times, the singers were supported just by a comping piano and maybe one other instrument, and the repeated monotone interjections on the trumpet—Arnold’s own instrument—became tiresome. During a love song intertwining five voices, the strings swept through but only momentarily. How I wished for more.

The music does however have its delights, triple-time dances and quirky, percussive, witty interludes and commentaries not a million miles from the continuity music one might have heard in Meet the Huggetts or The Clitheroe Kid.

Arnold wrote comparatively little for the voice, and didn’t make it easy for his stage performers here. As conductor John Andrews has pointed out, sometimes they have to enter on a note one semitone away from what they are hearing in the orchestra.

The cast are largely the same as that which recorded the opera for CD in 2019, and the experience showed in an almost faultless performance in terms of timing and intonation.

David Webb, the only new cast member, led the way as Gerard. His sound is sweet, unforced, very English, and he carries off his recital of past conquests ‘Margarita first possessed’ with a dash without much supporting help from Mendoza’s pedestrian script.

Mark Wilde cleverly wraps his French tongue around the coloratura parody of his show-off aria, Fiona Kimm is suitably curmudgeonly as the aunt, and bass-baritone Graeme Broadbent explores the depths of the register and of outrage as Miranda’s father Don Diego.

Catherine Carby provides one of the highlights, as she describes to the decidedly slow-on-the-uptake Monsieur her dream of a man stealing into her bed. Too much for the BBC, clearly, but the piece was not entirely wasted, Arnold recycling her tune into the film score for Hobson’s Choice.

Eleanor Dennis earned praise for her performance in the CD recording. I found her overbearing in this performance, her dynamics uniformly forte, searing in tone and with pronounced vibrato that delivered power at the expense of clarity. As a result, many in the audience had to squint at the surtitles displayed on inadequately small monitors.

Director Susan Moore mounts the production as if the BBC had accepted the piece, transferring the singers from the recording studio to the broadcasting studio. Under the ON AIR sign, they lounge about out of character, reading the script or eating a biscuit, playing jolly japes when not on mike, creating sound effects.

Unfortunately, the latter are the most amusing parts of the on-stage action. The modern-day setting makes the Johnny Foreigner caricatures seem out-of-place and the lack of interaction between characters means that the occasional funny line—"He is 12 months behind the fashion"—falls flat.

An inadequate libretto and a staging little better than a concert performance mean that neither Wycherley’s wry social commentary nor his message that those who fly from strict parental control may flee into the arms of unsuitable husbands, comes across. Arnold was probably wise to leave the piece in the locker and to concentrate on where his brilliant talent lay.

Reviewer: Colin Davison