Retrospect Opera

Great British Operas On Record

The Wags by Charles Dibdin RO008
Having revived the Dibdin ‘Table Entertainment’ – an idiosyncratic kind of one-man show with piano – with our Christmas Gambols album, we were eager to explore further the possibilities of recreating this sort of intimate theatrical experience, designed more for the ear than the eye. Dibdin’s fourth work in the genre, The Wags of 1790, proved much the most successful of these shows in his lifetime, and one of the great triumphs of his extraordinary, 50-year career. Like all his Table Entertainments, it was assumed to be largely lost, the published songs apart, but this is fortunately not the case: a huge amount of Wags material exists in manuscript form in the British Library, all written out in Dibdin’s distinctive, hard-to-read handwriting, which he himself called ‘a most villainous hand’. From this, David Chandler was able to reconstruct most of the show as it was first presented in 1790 (as he went on performing it, Dibdin would have made alterations from time to time). David then obtained a Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (C) from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science to make a recording of this important work. The recording reunited our Dibdin specialists, Simon Butteriss and Stephen Higgins, both of whom were delighted to return to the Richard Burnett Heritage Collection in Royal Tunbridge Wells, where we had previously recorded The Jubilee album. This again seemed the perfect place to make the recording, not just because of the gorgeous 1801 Broadwood grand we could use, but because Richard and Katrina Burnett are both huge Dibdin fans.

The essence of a Dibdin Table Entertainment was his ability to impersonate a range of characters and sing songs in character. The shows brilliantly combined his unique range of talents as a writer, composer, actor, singer, and even impresario, and are an important part of the history of British comedy, as well as music and theatre. The Wags is an exemplary example: we are invited to an imaginary ‘Camp of Pleasure’ outside London where a collection of glorious British eccentrics sing such classic Dibdin songs as ‘The Soldier’s Adieu’, ‘Irish Italian Song’, ‘Sound Argument’ and ‘The Auctioneer’. These songs achieved a wide cultural diffusion, and it is noteworthy that of the eight Dibdin songs in Jane Austen’s music collection, four are from The Wags. In all, our album includes 15 Dibdin songs, presented with the accompanying dialogue as they would have been heard in 1790.

For anyone new to Dibdin, The Wags is now the obvious place to begin. And if you’ve enjoyed The Wags, you should of course go on to explore Christmas Gambols and The Jubilee too!

  • Tracks 1-34: Charles Dibdin: The Wags (81.25)
    • Simon Butteriss (baritone)
    • Stephen Higgins (1801 Broadwood piano)
  • The booklet includes the full libretto, and essays by David Chandler and John Cunningham.
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