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The Dragon of Wantley

by on 15 November 2021

A Fundamental Hit

The Dragon of Wantley

by John Frederick Lampe, libretto by Henry Carey, arranged by Lindsay Bramley

Richmond Opera, at Normansfield Theatre until 14th November

Review by Mark Aspen

Take a bawdy late mediaeval poem about a raging dragon and a drunken knight, rewrite as an early Georgian burlesque opera, mount in a beautifully bijou mid-Victorian theatre, for a 21st Century audience; then you know you are in for a now-for-something-completely-different experience.

Johann Friedrich Lampe was almost completely different.  Born in Saxony in 1703, he was a virtuoso bassoonist, who came from Hanover with Handel to a successful music career as a composer in England.  Although now known (almost) as a hymnist, he was commercially canny in his choice of opera subjects for a London audience.  Pyramus and Thisbe, based on Shakespeare, and Columbine Courtesan, based on a another Ovid story, Cupid and Psyche, chimed with the challenge to then the endemic Italian opera seria, a challenge made popular by Handel.  The antidote was opera buffa with English libretti and earthy subjects and a tendency to parody the established genre.  Lampe’s biggest London hit was his 1737 premiere of his The Dragon of Wantley, a risqué comic opera, a spoof on the Italian opera conventions and a political satire aimed at the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole; just what theatre-goers wanted in 1737 (and arguably in 2021).  This was Augustan drama par excellence, but with superb baroque music.   Moving from the Haymarket and then on to Covent Garden, the production was the biggest commercial success at the time, beating even the hugely popular The Beggar’s Opera, which is far better known today.

Richmond Opera has a soft spot for The Dragon of Wantley, although it calls it “bonkers”.   In its previous incarnation as Isleworth Baroque, it produced the opera in 2012 and had intended to revive it in May 2020, but the bigger dragon of Covid19 intervened. 

The charmingly petite museum theatre at Normansfield is ideal for staging baroque opera, and with its exquisitely scenery, beautifully reproduced from the Victorian originals (held in cold storage in the basement), it sets off The Dragon of Wantley in style.

In that perfect style, the overture launches us into the full energy of the baroque, three sections that hint at the three acts, martial grandeur giving way to an anxious allegro and closing with élan.  The musical director, Lindsay Bramley conducts with an infectious enthusiasm.  I am told that the orchestra of twenty pieces, which include a copy of a 1644 Amatti violin, plus harpsichord, has had some last minute substitutions (including the timpanist lost to the Welsh National Opera) but it sounds seamless.  Bramley had broadened the parts for timpani and for the alto and tenor trombones and oboe, and has composed additional parts for baroque flutes and tenor recorder, giving a comprehensive richness to the score.

So what is The Dragon of Wantley about?  Henry Carey, Lampe’s librettist, had drafted the idea before developing it with Lampe, starting from an old Lincolnshire folk ballad first written down in the 1600s, about a fearsome dragon “as big as the Trojan Horse”, and living on Wantley (now Wharncliffe) Crags in the Peak District.  It devours everything and anything.  Then the drunken womanising knight, Moore of Moore Hall, emboldened with the promise of favours from a beautiful young maiden, slays the monster by a peculiarly unusual method.  He commissions a Sheffield steelmaker to make him a special suit of armour bristling with spikes.  He then goes off, unarmed, and kills the dragon with a well-aimed kick at the only part of the dragon’s body not protected with scales, as the ballad puts it … in his “arse-gut”!

The opera opens with the dozen strong chorus (of which five remain off-stage) crying for all to “Fly! Fly!”  The villagers generally are petrified of the dragon coming, and for good reason.  Gubbins, one of the elders of the village, played with agitated consternation by character bass John Rolt, and his younger daughter Marianne recount how the dragon is scoffing all the children of the village and snacking on their animals.  Soprano Claire Doran, as Marianne, has a lovely clarity of diction and certainly knows hold to hold a note.   

However, two young ladies, Mauxalinda and Gubbins’ elder daughter Margery, separately hit upon the same cunning plan.  A knight, Moore, who lives nearby at Moore Hall (which still exists near Deepcar) will do anything for a beautiful maiden.  He is “fearless” when drunk.  They are sure they can convince him to slay the dragon, as Margery says “like St George”.

The villagers are really buoyed up by this notion and decide to go to Moore Hall.  They sing

“Triumph Valour, Triumph Beauty” to finish the first act, a chorus that Bramley has inserted from another of Lampe’s works, The Perfections of True Love.

Then we are off to Moore Hall, where we find Moore carousing with a selection of the local toffs, the company transmogrified with a selection of wigs and gowns.  Costume designer Ezra Rose pitches the apparel of the characters just right, the strong colours but attenuated to speak the period (and match the sets); the styles are right, and there are added twists to underline the feel that this is a satire and a spoof.  Little anachronisms are thrown in, 21st century spectacles and footwear, and a seemingly self-perpetuating half-litre of wine that Moore uses to constantly refill his guest tankards, getting them well tanked-up in more senses than one. 

Moore is a vain, dissolute and bibulous, but likeable, rouge.  George Priestly, who plays Moore is too slim to be a Falstaff and too young to be a Don Quixote, but his acting pulls in something of each.  Priestly has a rounded baritone voice and active facial expressions, and he is clearly enjoying playing the roué.  When his sodden companions leave, to be replaced by the visiting delegation of villagers (courtesy of some lightning changes in the wings), Moore’s other predilection kicks in, his lustful appetite for young ladies of all ages. 

However, when Margery enters, calling him “gentle knight”, he is rapidly smitten and is soon on his knees, drooling.  They dance a brief minuet, and the proposition to tackle the dragon is put to him.  “Inspire me with kisses and ale” is what he asks and indeed he is rewarded with a kiss, more materteral than carnal I thought, although she does coyly flutter her fan.

Moore’s extravagant claims to dragon-slaying and his promises of devotion to Margery are overhead by Mauxalinda who has been eavesdropping.  Mauxalinda, is furious with Moore, with some justification, as these promises have been made to her.  She forcefully reminds Moore that they are betrothed.  He all too easily wins her back and she is content with his renewed vows (but they have probably been there before).   “Men are bewitching fellas”, purrs Mauxalinda.  

Nevertheless, Act Three opens with Moore’s emboldened attentions to Margery, checking her heart for “palpitations” and her décolleté for “sensations”, after she has come to see him fight on the field of valour.  However, Mauxalinda also arrives.  Sparks fly.  Margery is played by experienced baroque soprano Dawn Rolt, whose singing voice holds a pleasurable ringing sparkle.   As Mauxalinda, Erin Holmes is a consummate actress (you can read the plot in her expressions) and a powerfully beautiful singer, working here at the lower end of the soprano register.   They fire off of each other in the ensuing catfight.  Fur flies, and it is certainly catty.  One is reminded of Rossini’s Duetto buffo di due gatti (The Cat Duet), but in Lampe’s baroque musical structure, there is a remarkable syncopation, which underlines the spiteful snarling.  Eventually though the fight gets out of hand and Mauxalinda pulls out a bodkin from her bodice to attack Margery.  Moore intervenes and, rather unfairly, takes Margery’s side.

Moore though, has to get ready for battle.  He eschews the spear offered by Gubbins in favour of Dutch courage, calling for “six quarts of ale and one of aqua vitae”.  (I calculate that as 70 units, getting on for a month’s recommended maximum in one session: what a constitution!)  But he has his bespoke tailored suit of armour, as spikey as a silvered conker shell. 

When The Dragon finally appears, one feels almost sorry for the poor beast.  After the big puff (so to speak) he has had, he seems rather put-upon, not quite the anthropophagous monster we were led to believe.  And rather fetching in red and green.  It is Lampe’s stroke of genius to score The Dragon for a countertenor (maybe originally a castrato).  The effect is quite other-worldly.  It recalls the Royal Opera’s The Firework Maker’s Daughter (the last opera in the Linbury Studio before its rebuilding) in which the elephant is played by a countertenor.   Mark Fletcher is superb as The Dragon, the clarity of his voice having a hint of pathos, in spite of the black comedy.  It is pity that his part is so small, it would have been great to hear more.

Moore does his muscle warm-ups (de rigueur one might think when fighting a dragon) and the baroque battle commences.  After a struggle, the fatal blow in the fundament does it for The Dragon.   The creatures dying words ( “… your toe”) hang in the air long after his demise.

Baroque opera lends its well to fantasy and by extension as here to burlesque.  Director Louise Bakker has boldly let this form run.  The text of the libretto demands it, as to some extent the music.  Bakker has had a wide experience of directing opera, including on Christopher Luscombe’s team for his opera debut with The Grange Festival’s Falstaff, and it happily shows.  

Lampe’s score has all the key brightness and scintillation of typical highly decorated baroque opera music.  And where would the baroque be without its harpsichord continuo.  Much credit is due to Michael Keen for the foil to Bramley’s orchestra in his tireless performance on the harpsichord.

After The Dragon’s demise, the denouement is fairly rapid.  Mauxalinda graciously (or maybe wisely) steps back to allow Moore’s unrestrained affection to devolve upon Margery. 

Another hallmark of baroque opera is the directness of the text in distinction to the ornamentation of the music.  Think Handel’s Acis and Galatea (where there are many similarities in the plot).  Moore, now remarkably quickly sobered-up, declares “My sweet honeysuckle, my joy and delight, I could kiss you all day and hug you all night!” 

The villagers shout “Huzzah”  …  and so do we.   

Mark Aspen, November 2021

Photography by David Dearlove

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