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Lampe dragon RES10304
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John Frederick Lampe (1703-1751)
The Dragon of Wantley (1737)
Mary Bevan (soprano) – Margery
Catherine Carby (mezzo-soprano) – Mauxalinda
Mark Wilde (tenor) – Moore of Moore Hall
John Savournin (bass-baritone) – Gaffer Gubbins and The Dragon
The Brook Street Band/John Andrews
rec. 2021, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
Libretto included
RESONUS RES10304 [59 + 44]

John Frederick Lampe was a German bassoonist active in Handel’s orchestra, and conjecturally took composition lessons from Handel himself. In any case, his first opera was Amelia in 1732, the libretto for which was written by his friend Henry Carey. Five years later the two men collaborated on the rip-roaring The Dragon of Wantley, the farcical tale of the aforesaid dragon that terrorises a Yorkshire village, as dragons do.

Carey was adept at satirical word-play – in his day job he was a keen anti-Walpolian - and the whole work is a send-up of Handelian operatic procedure, in which his text provides a derisive roast beef underblanket to Lampe’s consummately professional score. If you can imagine Handelian music to which the following is sung, you’ll get some impression of the work: ‘Pigs shall not be so fond as we/We will outcoo the Turtle Dove…’ whilst ‘Sure my Stays will burst with sobbing’ is another endearing example of Carey’s wit. Lampe and Carey clearly studied the The Beggars’ Opera and came to the conclusion that, however popular it might have been, they could use pastiche and a mocking English plot – it could hardly be more English – to stake a small claim to originality.

Lampe was clearly an accomplished musician who had observed the conventions of opera seria closely. He takes every opportunity to emphasise the pomposo, recitative, da capo arias, the coloratura divisions, ‘pathetic’ arias, revenge arias, cooing duets, plaintive elements, the serio-comic descent to the chest voice, spitfire standoffs between the two leading women, instrumental battle music and so on. Microcosmically Handelian as this all is, has this Lampe-Carey opera sunk because it’s just too irreconcilably English? Its raison d'être seems to contain its extinction. Who cares for a pastiche when so much of the real thing is being discovered and rediscovered?

That would, I think, underestimate the fun to be had from an opera whose strapline could be ‘one aria to the libretto of another’. The two female singers are Mary Bevan and Catherine Carby, tussling over the hero and putative dragon-slayer, Mark Wilde, who takes the role of patrician, albeit alcoholically challenged, Moore of Moore Hall. Moore seems as incapable of resisting the booze as he is the ladies and is found in a metaphorical ‘trousers around the ankles’ scenario, much to his intended’s displeasure, which leads to an opportunity for a fast-paced revenge aria. The fourth member of the crew is John Savournin who takes the role of the Dragon – not a role that stretches Savournin’s acting chops, if we’re honest – and that of Gaffer Gubbins, a stock Yorkshireman straight out of Monty Python.

The pleasure to be had lies in the realisation that opera can be used as a vehicle for comedy, but a very specific sort of comedy predicated on a sophisticated awareness of what is being parodied. There’s no point writing a chorus littered with divisions setting the words ‘To him are Geese and Turkies’ if your audience doesn’t perceive the chasm between scrupulous orchestral effort and a (deliberately) risible text. Similarly, a ‘pathetic’ Handelian aria with an opening couplet that rhythms ‘But to hear the Children mutter’ with ‘When they lost their Toast and Butter’ drives still further a wedge between the nobility of the music and the self-confident solidity of the English text.

There are some missing words in the printed libretto and at least one missing line, ‘O give me not up’ on CD2 track 5. The helpful notes are by Dr Annette Rubery.

Orchestrally, this is meat and drink to The Brook Street Band and John Andrews who perform with admirable poise. The spirited cast, led by Mary Bevan, acquit themselves splendidly. The trick of this kind of work as everyone knows, is to sing it perfectly straight, the better to milk the fun, which comes from a libretto that seems to subvert the music, or at least to be borne by it on wings of cynical disengagement.

Oh, the dragon? It died.

Jonathan Woolf

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