Wednesday 8 April 2015

The Dragon of Wantley

The Dragon of Wantley
The Dragon of Wantley
Lampe The Dragon of Wantley; Susanna Fairburn, Rhiannon Llewellyn, David de Winter, James Harrison, Ars Eloquentiae, dir: Anne Allen, cond: Chad Kelly; London Handel Festival at St George's Hanover Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 07 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Lively revival of a neglected 18th century English comic gem

The Dragon of Wantley by John Frederick Lampe is one of those work which tends to crop up in history books rather more than on the operatic stage. A comic English language work which, when mentioned usually gets linked to works like The Beggars Opera, the group Ars Eloquentiae gave us the opportunity for finding out for ourself when their performance of it was staged on Tuesday 7 April 2015 at the London Handel Festival, at St George's Church, Hanover Square. Ars Eloquentiae, artistic directors Chad Kelly and Leo Duarte, was directed from the harpsichord by Chad Kelly, with Susanna Fairbairn as Margery, David de Winter as Moore of Moore Hall, Rhiannon Llewellyn as Mauxalinda, James Harrison as Gubbins and the dancer Francesca Bridge-Cicic as the dragon. The stage director was Ann Allen.

John Frederick Lampe (c1689-1743) was a bassoonist from Saxony who settled in London and ended up in Handel's orchestra. He also became friendly with a crowd which included composer Thomas Arne and the poet, composer and singer Henry Carey (c1689-1743). Between 1732 and 1734 Lampe and Carey collaborate on for operas in English, but they were flops; the audience was not interested in serious opera in English, it was Italian opera which was popular. What was popular in English was the ballad opera, the prime exemplar of which is The Beggars Opera premiered in 1728, and in her article programme book Katie Hawks makes the valid point that whilst the popularity of ballad opera had little material effect on that of Italian opera in London, it probably did inhibit the development of English opera.

Carey had written the words for a number of ballad operas (which tended to be satirical, and take pot shots at key issues of the day), and in 1737 he and Lampe had another go. Carey wrote a comic libretto based on an old English ballad, and Lampe set it to music. Not as a ballad opera, but as a through composed neo-Italian opera, thus sending up the genre of opera seria good and proper. Lampe's music has all of the rhetorical devices that would have been familiar from the Italian opera, but allied to ludicrous words and a very anti-heroic story. For instance Margery's lovely tragic aria which opens act two has the words 'Sure my stays will burst with sobbing'.

A dragon is harassing the good people of Wantley (near Rotherham in Yorkshire) and Gaffer Gubbins (James Harrison) and his daughter Margery (Susanna Fairburn) decide something needs doing about it. They approach Moore of Moore Hall (David de Winter) to act as a hero, he agrees to rid them of the dragon in return for Margery's love. But as a hero, Moore is rather wanting and his response to the challenge is simply to drink seven pints of sack, and dally with Margery. Unfortunately Mauxalinda (Rhiannon Llewellyn) catches them, and Moore has already had a dalliance with her. Argument follows and the three eventually kiss and make up. The advent of the dragon forces Moore into action and the opera ends with general celebration.

In addition to their solo responsibilities Fairburn, Llewellyn and Harrison also sang the chorus parts. Rather impressively, David de Winter had learned the role of Moore in 24 hours, having taken over from an ailing Gwilym Bowen. Generally, the soloists were off the book, though scores were present, and the staging by Ann Allen was rather fuller than we might have expected given the venue. They were accompanied by a small ensemble of five strings, two oboes and harpsichord.

The opera was performed slightly cut. Unfortunately the group had chosen to change the work's comic impact by removing the sung role of the dragon (replaced by a dancer), and thus omitting the work's main comic denouement whereby Moore is frightened by the dragon and hides in a well but when the dragon comes to drink Moore kicks it in the arse. None of this was in the performance, instead the danced dragon was tamed by Margery.

Lampe's music consists of a small but perfectly formed heroic Italian opera, if you listened without paying attention to the words you could easily think this was a sub-Handel copy. Lampe clearly understood how opera seria worked from the inside and transferred this to The Dragon of Wantley. This means that the soloists, though the piece is comic, need to be able to cope with the equivalent serious music. And all of the soloists did far more than cope, all performed with great elan and combined a nice technical skill with great comic timing.

Susanna Fairbairn has a strong, lyric soprano voice and made Margery a great comic tour de force, but Fairbairn impressed in her solo moments so that her tragic stays aria was finely sung (and very funny). It helped that her diction was good so that not only did she shape the music, but we could clearly hear lines like 'My poor Eyes are red as Ferrets'.

Rhiannon Llewellyn made a fine contrast, playing Mauxalinda the standard opera seria trope, the woman scorned and bent on revenge. Llewellyn has a vibrant soprano voice which was used with skill. She was delightfully vituperative and her scene where she has it out with Fairbairn's Margery was a great comic delight, being a lovely send-up of such moments in opera seria.

David de Winter made an impressively mellifluous hero considering he had taken up the role at such short notice. Moore is more interested in drink than heroics, and spends his time extolling its virtues or making up to the women. He had love scenes with each of the two women (!) thus giving Lampe the opportunity to show us the variety of types of duet he could write.

Harrison's role as Gubbins was important but not showy (a typical father role in opera seria) and Harrison showed a nice feel for Lampe's vocal writing.

Dancer Francesca Bridge-Cicic sported a wonderful mask as the dragon, and spent most of the first two acts roaming the church, though not terrorising the populace.

Director Ann Allen does not seem to have quite trusted her material, and her production worked far too hard at being funny. The antics of the cast, whilst indeed amusing in the moment, felt a bit over done over the course of the whole opera. The cast entered into the production with a will, and it clearly delighted the audience but I have to confess that I rather came away thinking that less is more.

I can't really understand why The Dragon of Wantley is not better known, the whole piece is a great delight and should especially appeal now that Handel's operas are so much better known. The work was premiered the same year as Giustino and the presence of monsters in both is probably not a coincidence. It would seem and ideal comic foil in a small opera company's repertoire. Looking on Amazon, I did not even seem to be able to find a recording, though Peter Holman and Opera Restor'd have recorded Lampe's Pyramus and Thisbe which is slightly later.

Directed by Chad Kelly, the instrumentalists gave us a fine and lively account of the score and had plenty of moments to shine with a complete mock-heroic overture and lots of other sinfonias and ritornelli.

All involved in The Dragon of Wantley are to be congratulated for bringing a comic gem to back to life with such skill, wit and energy, though I wish we had been permitted a singing dragon!

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1 comment:

  1. I wish I had seen that. I have the text of this work in a collection of plays printed in the early Nineteenth Century from acting copies at the Theatre Royal I have been long been intrigued by it. The work is described as a Burlesque Opera in three acts by H Carey, the text has the Old Ballad that inspired the opera.

    The engraving that heads the text shows the scene from Act III of Moore kicking the dragon, Moore's armour is depicted in being covered in spikes and the dragon is more comical than frightening. In the text the dragon only has 4 short lines speaking lines and three lines to sing, being 'Oh, oh! Mr. Moore, You son of a whore, I wish I'd known your tricks before'


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