Thursday 21 July 2022

The Dragon of Wantley: a fine Handelian cast have terrific fun with Lampe's parody of opera seria

John Frederick Lampe: The Dragon of Wantley - Mary Bevan, Catherine Carby, Mark Wilde, John Savournin, The Brook Street Band, John Andrews; RESONUS CLASSICS
20 July 2022 (★★★★½)

Lampe's delightfully satirical opera combines a crazy English plot with fine Italianate music, performed here with great style to superb effect.

Following the success of The Beggars Opera in the early 1730s, there was a renewed interest in the idea of English opera. Few significant works came out of this, but one that had a major success was somewhat in the same vein as The Beggars Opera. John Frederick Lampe's The Dragon of Wantley takes a satirical view of opera by combining a tale that is pure earth English fun and setting it to fine music. This combination of wit and pastiche worked well, and the work was popular. Though since the early 19th century it has rather languished and is certainly not as well known as it should be.

Now Resonus Classics have issued a new recording of John Frederick Lampe's The Dragon of Wantley with John Andrews conducting the Brook Street Band, and Mary Bevan as Margery, Catherine Carby as Mauxalinda, Mark Wilde as Moore of Moore Hall and John Savournin as Gaffer Gubbins and the Dragon.

Unlike The Beggars Opera this is no simple arrangement of existing tunes. Lampe was a professional bassoonist in Handel's orchestra and The Dragon of Wantley uses finely Italianate-style music, linked to the slightly crazy text. The story originally comes from a 17th century broadside ballad; the dragon is ravaging Yorkshire, the hero Moore is more interested in beer than heroics and he has two women, Margery and Mauxalinda interested in him. One of the reasons why the work has not been seen much of is that the sources are patchy. There are two scores, a very full one published in London in 1738 that includes the arias and ensembles but no recitatives, and a shorter score from the 1740s which has recitatives but is heavily cut, probably for touring purposes. John Andrews' booklet article explains the details. The version used is a synthesis of the two and Andrews comments that it is probably far longer than versions performed in the 18th century. 

No matter. It is full of lively and imaginative music, sung by a cast that would be perfectly at home in a Handelian opera. The work opens in fine style with John Savournin swaggering as Gaffer Gubbins and then Handelian chorus to the words 'Houses and churches, to him are geese and turkies', a complete delight.

Mary Bevan makes a lovely Margery, introduced with a plangently elegant aria whilst we meet Catherine Carby's Mauxalinda in a more vigorous style. The object of their interest and affections, Moore, is incarnated by Mark Wilde with a rousing drinking song about Zeno, Plato and Aristotle being lovers of the bottle.  Margery pleads with Moore via delightful Handelian aria (with lovely solo oboe) and this results in a tussle with Moore moving between the two singers. The act ends with charming duet Moore (Wilde) and Mauxalinda (Carby) delightfully cooing to words such as 'Pigs shall not be so fond as we'.

Act Two sees Bevan's Margery all plaintive again, 'Sure my stays will burst with sobbing' and it is in the quality of Margery's arias that we can feel remarkable nature of this work. Of course, the two women have to have a duet, not a spitting one but highly Italianate, each outdoing each other in twiddles albeit with some name calling too! Then the two women (Bevan and Carby) and Moore have a trio, charmingly elegant as the three settle their differences.

Only now, in Act Three, can we turn attention to the dragon. Moore has a vigorously busy, mock-heroic aria and the Battle Piece sees him kill the Dragon (Savournin) via a kick on the back-side. The dragon does indeed get a short aria, of course, before his death in a terrific accompagnato 'The devil take your toe' which Savournin sings with great relish.

The cast are all excellent, singing the music with wonderfully po-faced glee and plenty of Handelian style. There is no hint of send-up, and of course that is what makes it so much fun. The singers, instrumentalists and conductor are all able to well hold their own in genuine opera seria, and this stylistic confidence shines through here.

Diction is admirably excellent so that we get every detail of Henry Carey's libretto and can relish the mismatch between word and music.

John Frederick Lampe (1703-1751) - The Dragon of Wantley
Margery - Mary Bevan
Mauxalinda - Catherine Carby
Moore of Moore Hall - Mark Wilde
Gaffer Gubbins/Dragon - John Savournin
The Brook Street Band
John Andrews (conductor)
Recorded in St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb on 1–4 September 2021
RESONUS CLASSICS RES10304 2CDs [59:44, 48:12]

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