The Dragon of Wantley

“Updated to the 1980s miners’ strike, New Sussex Opera’s production mixes political satire and period style along with a sense of enjoyment in the work’s send-up of opera seria.” – Planet Hugill

“I have seen two previous presentations of John Frederick Lampe’s burlesque opera, and enjoyed them both greatly, but this new production by New Sussex Opera is the most inventive and exhilarating by far.

Paul Higgin’s brilliant direction sets us in the middle of the miners’ strike of the 1980s, with a grim, fearful local community. Gaffer Gubbins, their leader, sung with authority by Robert Gildon, and his militant daughter Margery (Ana Beard Fernandez blessed with a Milky Way of a stellar range) approach the semi-debauched Moore (Magnus Walker pleasantly, mildly heroic) to rid the village of the dragon. Mauxalinda, an out-of-step debutante type, fancies herself as Moore’s girlfriend, a role wonderfully taken by Charlotte Badham with her lowest registers particularly telling. Her cat-fight with Margery is a wonderfully tabloid reconstruction of a vicious altercation onstage which actually happened between two of Handel’s leading sopranos.

That event is preserved in a brilliant contemporary cartoon featuring in David James’ treasurable programme-book, a genuine souvenir crammed with information and documentary illumination, not least in its history of dragons.

And that is where this show becomes jaw-droppingly stupendous, at the moment we at last encounter the Dragon of Wantley. No mythical fire-belcher, this, but a woman with more than a hint of Margaret Thatcher (arch-enemy of the miners), clad in a true-blue two-piece with winged shoulders, and brandishing a nifty handbag before she gets her come-uppance with a boot in the rear delivered not by the braggadocio Moore but by his manservant. The Dragon is played by Robert Gildon (a busy costume-change, and back again soon after), which gives us a life-enhancing pun: drag-on.

Everything ends happily: Margery and Mauxalinde are now bosom-buddies, Moore is a hero, and the threat has been banished. The Wantley Choral Society, the excellent NSO Chorus all amateurs, sing a mock-paean from Handel’s Messiah.

Throughout this fabulous show Toby Purser directs a crisp, lively, tiny orchestra from the keyboard, with natural horns and trumpets answering each other from opposite boxes in this gem of a little auditorium. New Sussex Opera, with its largely amateur contingent back- and front-stage, is an enterprising, imaginative company with so much to offer – and all without the incubus of funding from Arts Council England.

Christopher Morley

“Carey’s text contains contemporary satirical resonances that would surely be lost on a modern audience. So director Paul Higgins has updated the period of the piece to the 1980s miners’ strike, which was eventually defeated by prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Splendidly arrayed in a magnificently characteristic Thatcherite costume, complete with enormous handbag, the former PM, sung by Robert Gildon, is in this instance the ‘dragon’ defeated by Professor Moore.

There’s fine playing on period instruments from the Bellot Ensemble in the pit, with conductor Toby Purser maintaining a taut grip on the score’s unstoppable momentum.” George Hall

“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.” Curtis Rogers – Classical Source

JOHN FREDERICK LAMPE

Burlesque opera in three acts

Libretto by Henry Carey

April / May 2024
All Saints Centre, Lewes
The Old Market, Hove
Trinity Theatre, Tunbridge Wells
Theatre Royal, Winchester
Blackheath Halls, London
Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne

 photographs
Robert Knights & Colin Chapman

 

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

NSO Chorus
Bellot Ensemble
Conductor – Toby Purser
Director – Paul Higgins
Designer – Mollie Cheek
Lighting Designer – Emma Gasson
Dramaturg – Benjamin Poore
Chorus Master – Hamish Dustagheer
Assistant conductor/ repetiteur –
Erika Gundesen

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