Malcolm Arnold’s Dancing Master at the Buxton Opera Festival

As a composer, Malcolm Arnold did not have an easy time. Although his vast output of works found favour with audiences for their tonal tuneful content, he was treated mainly with disdain by the musical establishment. He had particular misfortune with his four operas, two of which remained incomplete and the other two largely unperformed. One of the latter, The Dancing Master was commissioned by the BBC in 1952 but ditched by them, apparently on the ground that its libretto by Joe Mendoza, based on a William Wycherley play, was too “bawdy”. The Red Squirrel Opera, recently launched with the worthy aim of staging and recording lost and neglected works, have rendered the opera world a service by disinterring the piece and presenting it at the Buxton Festival.

In doing so, they perhaps could have adopted a firmer and more critical hand. It was clearly written in a hurry and – for its material – is too long and diffuse, with several loose ends. The plot, an intrigue about the marital fate of a rich man’s daughter, is flimsy and silly but Arnold’s lyrical, melodic score gives much pleasure and the singers (Eleanor Dennis, David Webb, Catherine Carby, Mark Wilde, Graeme Broadbent, Fiona Kimm) obviously enjoyed portraying the zany characters. Red Squirrel’s director John Andrews conducted the Northern Chamber Orchestra in a lively but also musically satisfying performance.

The restrictions externally imposed by the Covid pandemic necessarily reduced what could be achieved in the staging by Susan Moore. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention and the astute decision was taken to present the opera as if bring broadcast in a BBC radio studio, and thus in line with its original conception. This meant not only that little was required by way of sets and props but also that the singers, with scripts in hand, had a ready solution for any lapses of memory. Perhaps more could have been done to have enhanced the character of the work as a parody of French or Italian comic opera, but the setting worked effectively. The enthusiasm of the performers was, in any event, infectious and the audience went home happy.