Concert review by Holly Harris

Little Opera Company stages A Dinner Engagement in Winnipeg

Friday 8th April 2011

Le Collége Universitaire de Saint-Boniface, Canada


It's a mystery why it took nearly 60 years for British composer Sir Lennox Berkeley's A Dinner Engagement to be staged in Winnipeg. However, The Little Opera Company thrives on producing lesser-known operas, with this comic opera its sole offering of the season.

The three performances held in April at Salle Martial Caron Theatre featured a seven-member cast directed by Ted Stebbing. The production also marked the LOC debut of Music Director/pianist Michael McKay, who easily navigated the innumerable stylistic shifts of Berkeley's through-composed score. McKay has quickly become a strong asset to Winnipeg's second opera company and will hopefully be heard again soon.

Set during the post-war years in London, England, the two-scene opera with libretto by Paul Dehn features a loopy romantic storyline underscored by clashing cultures and class. Former aristocrats the Earl and Countess of Donmow have fallen on hard times and are scheming to marry off their daughter, Susan, to visiting dinner guest, Prince Philippe, the Grand Duchess of Monteblanco's bachelor son. After feasting on pickled walnuts and cold cherry soup, Susan and Philippe instantly fall in love and declare their betrothal to their delighted parents as hired help Mrs. Kneebone triumphantly announces, "Dinner is served!"

The witty opera has several poignant numbers. Baritone Michael Dunbar as Lord Dunmow imbued In the summer of my time with wistful longing for happier days of toast and tea." Come and see our little garden, performed by the Earl and Countess Dunmow, Prince Philippe and the Duchess with its ending "before it dies," became a world-weary statement of hope. But this is still comedy, and so hilarity abounds. The rollicking Prenez six belles tomates had the ensemble gleefully hacking away at vegetables while pounding out the rhythm with cleavers.

Soprano Deanna Smith (Susan) has a pleasing voice with fine comedic skills. Her defiant entrance, garishly dressed in evening finery with her cheeks rouged, almost brought down the house. Youthful lyric tenor Michael Au (the Prince) had a warm delivery that was immediately apparent in Forgive my curiosity. However, some intonation difficulties and struggling with top notes in Mon aimee attend la lune marred an otherwise strong performance.

The cast also included dramatic coloratura soprano Margo Harding as the Countess and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Rotoff as a bespectacled Grand Duchess. Mrs. Kneebone was ably sung by mezzo Linda De Pauw, who had performed the role of Susan for real royalty: Prince Charles during the early 1980s.

The entire show takes place in a kitchen, realistically created by set designer Ian Fillingham. Costumes by Katie Marie Poole and lighting by Edward Lee Stebbing rounded out the production.

This opera still sounds as musically fresh as when it was composed in 1954. And its not-so-subtle commentary on the vagaries of class also remains as timely as ever.