New Sussex Opera – Lampe’s The Dragon of Wantley

The Dragon of Wantley – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Henry Carey [Sung in English]

Margery – Ana Beard Fernández
Mauxalinda – Charlotte Badham
Gaffer Gubbins/Dragon – Robert Gildon
Moore – Magnus Walker

New Sussex Opera Chorus

Bellot Ensemble
Erika Gundesen

Paul Higgins – Director
Mollie Cheek – Designer
Emma Gasson – Lighting
Benjamin Poore – Dramaturg

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 21 April, 2024
Venue: The Old Market, Hove, East Sussex, UK

John Frederick Lampe’s opera The Dragon of Wantley (1737) is based on a Yorkshire legend about a ferocious dragon who terrorises the area of Wharncliffe Crags that was made better known in a ballad. The opera served not only to satirise the conventions of Italian (particularly Handelian) opera seria (the scenario conveniently echoes the story of Angelica’s rescue from the orc in Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, the literary basis for not a few such operas) but also Robert Walpole’s government. Paul Higgins’s production brings the action forwards by two-and-a-half centuries to spoof the showdown between Margaret Thatcher’s government and the coal miners, making her the devouring dragon seen off by the drunken lord of the manor, Moore of Moore Hall. In the best traditions of English pantomime, it’s especially amusing to have Robert Gildon, the bluff miners’ leader here (in the part of a Yorkshire-intoned Gubbins), take on that role in drag to sing the dragon’s bass aria.

Any exuberant, slapstick political satire is otherwise largely avoided and simply left implied (would it be too glib or childish to want to see the dragon’s ravishing of children equated with ‘milk snatcher’ Thatcher’s withdrawing of free milk for schoolchildren; or the destruction of houses (‘Houses and churches, to him are geese and turkies’) with her selling off of local authority housing, given the impact that has had on the availability of affordable property; or perhaps Gubbins more obviously equated with Arthur Scargill?). The high jinks are reserved for the confrontations between Mauxalinda (engaged to Moore) and Margery (another villager with whom he falls in love) so that the satire subsists mainly at the level of dramatic or theatrical conventions (Lampe and his librettist, Henry Carey, no doubt had in mind the rivalry between such prima donna singers as Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni) rather than targeting the political realm or current affairs as such. Certainly, that is made musically colourful here, and well contrasted, with Charlotte Badham’s wild volleys of notes as Mauxalinda (the nearest that Lampe gets to sustained coloratura in his score, which otherwise generally sets words syllabically) and Ana Beard Fernández’s more tender, reserved account of Margery. The latter also demonstrates notable stamina in the tongue-twisting air ‘If that’s all you ask, my sweetest, my featest, compleatest’ where the rhyming words quickly trip over each other in compound time, following in very quick succession a slower-paced air, rather anticipating the cabaletta of later, Romantic opera.

The work’s attack upon government and public life is taken more seriously in this production so that it becomes something more of an earnest morality tale, like a theatrical take on a Hogarth painting, two centuries before Stravinsky and Auden got there with The Rake’s Progress, but with, here, a nostalgic look back to the close-knit nature of mining communities with the villagers and instrumental ensemble cast as the Wantley Colliery Chorus and Band. Lampe possibly had an eye to the nascent, and more morally high-minded form of English oratorio with the sequence of choruses in the first Act of this work (which almost none of Handel’s operas encompassed) and Carey perhaps entertained the same thought in the acclamations of the final chorus ‘Sing, sing and rorio an oratorio’. It’s also intriguing that those choruses in Act One bemoan the dragon’s ravages, pre-empting the choral descriptions of the destructive plagues recounted in Handel’s Israel in Egypt, composed the year after this opera. Although the work sends up Handel’s operas in various ways, Higgins still pays the composer a compliment at the end by having the concluding chorus presented as the Colliery Choir’s performance of Messiah.

The more serious tone adopted here seems to be the reason for downplaying Moore’s role by presenting him as a schoolmaster or university lecturer, rather than the more flamboyant figure of Carey’s libretto, to which Magnus Walker responds with a performance of quiet heroic focus rather than volatile charisma. His ode to drink on his first appearance (‘Zeno, Plato, Aristotle, all were lovers of the bottle’) is soberly delivered in front of a blackboard as a lesson, and he fights off the Iron Lady in a red doctoral robe and bonnet – is it perhaps too far-fetched to see in that an allusion to the fact that, Oxford University, her own alma mater, pointedly refused to award her an honorary doctorate while she was Prime Minister? Or is it a more general metaphor for the supposed battle between an educated ‘metropolitan elite’ (as the Thatcher epigone Liz Truss and other ‘alt-right’ commentators continue to aver) and those who claim to lead with the voice and authority of popular opinion?

From the keyboard, Erika Gundesen (standing in for Toby Purser in this performance) discreetly but stylishly leads the one-to-a-part Bellot Ensemble in a vivacious reading of the score, replete with pairs of trumpets and horns in the Overture and a couple of other numbers which, in this comic context, ironically underline the anti-heroic temper of the narrative. Two oboes fill out the string sonority to provide the typical sound of a Handelian opera orchestra, providing a particularly plangent contribution, as though mimicking the cor anglais, in a couple of airs. Overall, the production steers a happy medium between raucous fun and sincere sentiment, without taking itself too seriously, and winningly offers the rare chance to encounter what was a huge hit on the 18th-century London stage.

Further performances at various locations to May 12

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