Haymarket Opera stylishly revives a comic gem with “Dragon of Wantley”

Mon Oct 28, 2019 at 3:37 pm

By John von Rhein

David Govertsen tussles with the title adversary in The Dragon of Wantley, presented by Haymarket Opera Company. Photo: Anna Cillan

Haymarket Opera Company has built an enviable reputation by unearthing seldom-performed 18th and 17th century stage works and doing so with imaginative attention to period manner. But even by the Chicago troupe’s own venturesome standards, its current exhumation, The Dragon of Wantley, ranks right up there on the scale of Most Neglected Historical Curios.

So hats off to Haymarket artistic director Craig Trompeter and friends for dusting off another worthwhile rarity and serving it up so exuberantly, in a delightful little vest-pocket production that opened Sunday at the Studebaker Theater on South Michigan Avenue.

Only one more performance remains on Tuesday evening, so aficionados of early opera who are curious to know why The Dragon of Wantley was an immediate sensation with London audiences – it ran for a record 69 performances during its first season in 1737 at London’s Haymarket Theater and held the boards for another 45 years at Covent Garden – are well advised to make haste to the Studebaker box office. They are unlikely to get the opportunity again.

The German-born composer John Frederick Lampe and his librettist, Henry Carey, were rather like the Sullivan and Gilbert of their day, in their case lampooning the conventions of then-popular Italian opera seria while poking fun at the foibles of contemporary politicians.

Lampe was a bassoonist in his colleague and fellow Saxon-native George Frideric Handel’s opera orchestra, so he parodied Italian baroque opera with an insider’s knowledge. (Handel’s Serse, which Chicago’s Haymarket presented last season, had its premiere one year after that of Dragon.) The fact that Lampe’s greatest hit – it is the only one of his operas to survive complete – was based on a well-known ballad with roots dating back to medieval times could only have sealed its success with 18th century London audiences.

Whereas many of Handel’s Italian operas are built around heroic deeds in legendary lands, Carey’s wafer-thin narrative is set in a village in the librettist’s native Yorkshire that is being ravaged by a dragon. The country folk beg a nobleman, Moore of Moore Hall, to slay the beast, but he agrees to their quid only if marriage to the fair Margery is the quo. That arrangement understandably rouses the ire of his former squeeze, Mauxalinda. Complications ensue before our hero vanquishes the dragon with a well-placed kick to its backside – a pointed reference to the “rump Parliament” of Lampe and Carey’s era, another of the “burlesque opera’s” little in-jokes.

If the plot is padded out as outrageously as Moore’s ornate tunic, the delightful score, along with a winning performance and a charming production that is right up there with Haymarket’s best, amply justify artistic director Craig Trompeter’s taking an educated flier on a work almost nobody has heard of, much less heard.

Imagine a delicious duet for the female romantic rivals following on the heels of the line “D’ye laugh, you minx? I’ll make you change your note, or drive your grinning grinders down your throat!” and you get a sense of how Dragon operates. No mere trifle musically, the piece comprises a succession of finely crafted ariosos, duets and ensembles, supported by inventive orchestral underpinning, and set to silly couplets in vernacular English. Lampe clearly knew and loved the Handelian models he was satirizing but clearly his model for how to tickle the popular fancy was John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, which premiered nine years earlier.

Haymarket regular Sarah Edgar’s staging typically adheres to 18th century dramatic convention while peppering the stage with plenty of broad physical comedy to drive home the innate silliness. There are flatulence jokes and manic vaudeville turns and—courtesy of set designer Zuleyka Benitez—a cute, fanged dragon that bass David Govertsen rides like an 18th century child’s hobby horse.  Two-dimensional stage props underscore the deliberate artificiality of the period décor, and Meriem Bahri’s costumes once again comprise a veritable symphony of fabrics, textures and colors. Dragon of Wantley looks right at home in the intimate confines of the 691-seat Studebaker Theater.

It sounds it too. Resuscitating this forgotten gem clearly was a labor of love for Trompeter, and it shows in the deft pacing, crisp articulations and transparent textures he secures from his spirited 15-member orchestra. The tangy oboes are a delight throughout, and Jory Vinikour’s brilliantly florid harpsichord flourishes lend a stylish buoyancy to the crucial continuo part. With musical values as high as these, the show could not miss.

Apart from Michael St. Peter as the dragon-slaying hero, the vocal ensemble is made up of Haymarket stalwarts. Kimberly McCord (Margery) and Lindsay Metzger (Mauxalinda) are wonderful as the cat-fighting lasses vying for Moore’s affections, the former spinning her creamy legato lines with liquid ease, the latter playing the mistress scorned to the comedic hilt. Govertsen is fine in his two brief roles, and St. Peter is a discovery indeed. His is the ideal tenor voice for Moore, flouncing around as a campy, bibulous fop, dispatching the heroic coloratura challenges as handily as the role’s more lyrical requirements. His singing is warm, beautiful and true. Haymarket really should keep an eye on this Chicago-born talent.

The Dragon of Wantley will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Ave. haymarketopera.org; 312-898-7446.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Haymarket Opera stylishly revives a comic gem with “Dragon of Wantley””

  1. Posted Oct 31, 2019 at 3:50 pm by Mary Houston

    This performance was a delight to watch. The emphasis was on the dragon, but the city was name “Wantley”. If one thinks about the “n” in “want” it offers the opportunity to appreciate the satire on heroic love (cat fight and the fact that either woman is attracted to the drunkard) and added a wonderful dimension to any already dense but very comic presentation. Everything fit together. Excellent performance.

  2. Posted Oct 31, 2019 at 5:18 pm by John Empfield

    Saw the production Tuesday night but just read the review. This was a fabulous romp full of great tunes and broad comedy. too bad there are no recordings of the work. It deserved a long overdue revival.

  3. Posted Nov 01, 2019 at 11:16 am by MARIA VON TILING-LEWIN

    It was an excellent and most delightful performance and I wish that Haymarket would bring this same performance out as a DVD.

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