John Frederick Lampe: The Dragon of Wantley
The Brook Street Band, John Andrews
Resonus Classics RES10304. 2CDs 59’44+44’12
Mary Bevan soprano, Margery
Catherine Carby mezzo soprano, Mauxalinda
Mark Wilde tenor, Moore of Moore Hall
John Savournin bass-baritone, Gaffer Gubbins and The Drago
The German-born bassoonist and composer John Frederick Lampe is little-known today, as is this opera, but both were well-known in their time. A recording of his opera The Dragon of Wantley is well worthwhile, although the subtleties of the irony of the text and the pastiche of the music, let alone the possible allusions to the politics of the day, may escape a present-day listener. But no matter, the music is delightful and the oh-so-rhyming text is funny, in a deliberately hamfisted way.
The text is based on a broadside ballad based on a Yorkshire folk tale of a dragon that terrorises a village, gobbling up its residents and their food (“hear the Children mutter / When they lost their Toast and Butter”). Gaffer Gubbins and his daughter Margery, together with Maxalinda ask for the help of the local squire, Moore of Moore Hall – a notorious drunkard. He falls for Margery’s pleading and her offer of love, notwithstanding that he is already promised to Mauxalinda. The resulting love triangle takes most of the opera to be sorted out before Moore gets around to defeating the dragon in the last Act, rather implausibly, with a well-aimed kick up the bum. Dr Annette Rubery provides a useful background note to the opera and the librettist Henry Carey.
The music is Italian Handelian to its core, the mismatch between that and the actual words being one of the comic elements of the piece. It is tempting, and not too difficult, to try and associate elements of the Lampe’s music to real Handel.
There is a frustrating area of white space on the booklet page with the photo of The Brook Street Band that should surely have been filled with the names and instruments of the musicians. Unforgivingly, not one of them are acknowledged. That is particularly unfortunate as the instrumental playing is the strongest aspect of this recording. Sadly, the singing is not a strong point. There is far too much vibrato from the two female voices, some unsteady intonation from the tenor, and a general lack of appreciation of the conventions of the ornamentation styles of the period. One positive aspect is that the singers all take the ridiculous words seriously, with no attempts to ham it up. John Andrews’ direction is reasonable enough, but he can appear rather plodding on occasion. He could also have pushed the dramatic content of the music rather more. The acoustic of the vast church of St Jude-on-the-Hill in Hampstead Garden Suburb does not suit the music, or the original performance acoustic – and, indeed, may have encouraged the singers to push their voices, with the resultant vibrato, too much.