A cheeky spoof reawakens

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Moore of Moore Hall must kill the Dragon of Wantley. First, though, he needs a drink – six quarts of ale and one of aquavit. “Fill, fill, fill a mighty Flagon/Then I’ll kill, kill, kill this monstrous Dragon,” he promises.

John Frederick Lampe played the bassoon in Handel’s London opera orchestra. It was there that he discovered his knack for parody. Then he met librettist Henry Carey, and The Dragon of Wantley was born. It was a hit at its 1737 premiere, and became even more popular than The Beggar’s Opera. Lampe would never score another success of this order and Carey hanged himself in a fit of pique, but their Dragon was not dead – only sleeping.

Potsdam’s annual gem of a summer music festival teamed up this year with Opera Restor’d to awaken Lampe’s cheeky spoof of everything Handellian. The Dragon of Wantley, in a suitably impertinent production by Jack Edwards, followed Purcell’s King Arthur in a festival focused on English music.

The revival was worth it for the libretto alone. Lampe methodically sends up his contemporaries’ tales of love, confusion and heroism with his saga of Moore vs Dragon. The former takes on the latter, who has caused consternation by eating not only the people of Wantley but also their breakfasts (“But to hear the Children mutter/When they lost their Toast and Butter”), when the sweet maiden Margery asks it of him. She will be his prize. He is fond of a drink (“Zeno, Plato, Aristotle,/All were Lovers of the Bottle”) and irresistible to women. Mauxalinda, his betrothed, is none too pleased (“Go, Trollop, go!”), but Moore stops her from murdering Margery and tames her with the threat of legal action (“O give me not up unto the law,/I’d much rather beg on crutches:/Once in a Solicitor’s Paw,/You never get out of his Clutches.”) He slays the Dragon with a kick in the nether regions (“Oh! Oh! Oh! The Devil take your Toe”) and the people rejoice (“Sing, sing and roario,/An Oratorio”).

But the evening’s discovery was Lampe’s effervescent score, so deft
a satire that it sounds as if it could have been written by Handel. On a better day. Lampe trots from recitative to da capo aria, through sprightly joy (“My sweetest, my featest,/Compleatest, and Neatest”) and lament (“My poor Eyes are red
as Ferrets,/And I hain’t a Grain of Spirits”) to final choral HUZZA with irrepressible melodic invention and a keen sense of structure.

It helped that the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, directed by Gary Cooper, played with such relish, precision and commitment. With gifted young singers the project was assured of success. Joana Seara’s Margery was just the right mixture of purity and petulance, Tamsin Dalley made a shrewish, throaty Mauxalinda, Daniel Auchincloss lent a twinkle of self-mockery to a vocally heroic Moore, Michael Bundy and Nicholas Warden were satisfyingly entertaining as Gubbins and the Dragon.

Students of theatre design in Liverpool provided a wardrobe of extravagant costumes, and Ashley Shairp’s simple sets of movable painted screens provided a clear yet whimsical space for the action. And the setting, a perfect baroque opera house in miniature tucked into Frederick the Great’s second summer palace, put the finishing touch to a delightful evening.

Tel +49 331 288880. www.musikfestspiele-potsdam.de

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