Sunday, 2 October 2011

Berkeley/Martinu Double Bill, Rosemary Branch

Lennox Berkeley
Lennox Berkeley's A Dinner Engagement and Bohuslav Martinu's Comedy On The Bridge, performed at the Rosemary Branch Theatre by Minotaur Music Theatre, are not particularly well-known works. There are a number of reasons for this. Neither Berkeley nor Martinu are particularly familiar names, and one-act operas are by their nature rather marginalised (it's difficult to programme one for an evening in the same way as a full-length, three act work; and the necessary pairing to fill the programme, such as this, results in tempering of each other work's impact).

It's also the case that neither work is really particularly overwhelming. A Dinner Engagement (1954) is a jolly but highly mannered domestic farce, an Ealing Comedy set in a kitchen. Self-conscious stylistic ideas creep in to try and froth up the text and for all the crisp lyricism in the melody there isn't really call for either bel canto proper (pace Prince Phillipe's moments of pastiche) or quite the thematic distinction that one associates with Berkeley's contemporary Benjamin Britten (on whose own social comedy of seven years earlier, Albert Herring, Berkeley cannot have helped to have drawn in some way - I certainly heard some of this is in the ensemble stretches).

Bohuslav Martinu
It has charm though, which was what I missed from the Martinu. The Comedy On The Bridge (1937) is a very comprehensive way of describing the function of the piece - aside from the absurdity of the five-handed cast getting stranded on a bridge slung between two conflicting armies there isn't all that much humour to be wrung out of the work. Once again though, there are nice tranches of melody (albeit in the surprisingly angular, post-Janacek vein) to be savoured.

Both shows used the same production team, clearly a hand-in-glove outfit where Gregor Donnelly's sets stretch out diagonally from a rear wing to the front of the stage on the opposite side and are lit (specifically in the Martinu) with musical precision by Jerome Douglas. The design also assists director Stuart Barker in keeping the characters moving in very mobile productions.

All twelve of the singing cast gave good accounts of the roles. In Dinner, David Milner-Pearce relished the Earl of Dunmow's language and Emily Kenway gave Mrs Kneebone the full Eliza Doolittle, neither scrimping on tone. As Prince Phillipe, Alberto Sousa sang with bright and easy ring, well-managed within the small space; the Cupid-strike between him and Louise Lloyd's Susan was sweetly played. Sara Gonzalez Saavedra and Elizabeth Roberts played their mother figures straight but with attention and subtlety - I must also mention the bookending role of the Errand Boy which required tenor Rhys Bowden to run into the brewing farce, blurt out high-lying music and then rush off again. It's in such well-taken moments that the comedy lights up.

On the Bridge, there was a similar consistency, with the Samuel Smith's baritone Schoolmaster for me the stand-out (though I wish he hadn't needed to rush about so much to point up his mania and that tiresome 'deer' business). Georgis Ginsberg's Josephine was also fine, setting the standard in the first five minutes to which the subsequent Joseph Padfield (Brewer), Owain Browne (Johnny) and Marta Fontanals-Simmons (Eva) rose. Daniel Ricker's spoken role (the Guards, offstage) was a well-judged addition to the mix, just the right pace and drawl in delivery to convince as a jobsworth and lubricate the comedy nicely. Alice Turner and Lliam Paterson played the pianos (and more besides!) musically and securely in sometimes tricksy scores.

No comments: