The BEMF Chamber Orchestra and a small vocal ensemble shared an essentially faultless performance of Jonathan Lampe’s comic opera The Dragon Of Wantley at Jordan Hall last Sunday. Composed in 1737 at the height of Handelian opera’s popularity in England, the opera’s music and libretto satirize every aspect of this genre, admirably poking fun at their source material: doggerel of the highest order (“Poor children three, devoured he, that could not with him grapple, and at one sup, he eat them up, as one would eat an apple.”); the music, simultaneously rapturous and insipid, complemented perfectly. Almost 300 years later even their most subtle jabs and humorous inflections enraptured and tickled our fancies in this effortless show.
Although an unabashed satire of Italianate Baroque opera, with all of the expected pomposity and rigid conventions, Stephen Stubbs, Paul O’Dette, and company honored the material with tender care. An adept composer capable of writing in a wide breadth of styles, Lampe showcased this with his stately instrumental Overture, breathtaking melodic writing in the arias, some fairly complex imitative polyphonic textures in the choral sections, and the inclusion of simple tavern songs
Gilber Blin’s exuberant semi-staging made the absurd joy of the music and language palpable, as the cast and orchestra embraced the work’s wide emotional breadth. Stubbs, conducting from his seat with his guitar in hand, led the cast in a breath-taking, dissonant, almost out-of-time choral plea to Moore of Moore-Hall to vanquish the dragon (“O Save Us All!). We felt the desperation and terror in our viscera.
Aaron Sheehan, with his rich sonorous tenor voice, embodied the braggadocious swaggering bravado of Moore of Moore-hall expertly, especially in his introductory aria “Come, Friends, Let’s Circulate This Cheerful Glass.” Sheehan’s sophomoric character was offset brilliantly by bass-baritone Douglas Williams in the role of Margery’s father Gaffer Gubbins. His voice always had a seriousness and gravity that befitted the character and provided a counterpoint, both in musical and emotional range, to the rest of the cast. In the second act, Margery and Mauxalinda (played wonderfully by Teresa Wakim and Hannah De Priest respectively), sang a spiteful duet (“Insulting Missy, You’re Surely Tipsy”) filled with such virtuosic fire and vocal snark that their hatred for each other became immediately apparent.
Every decision, from Seth Bodie’s costumes and Melinda Sullivan’s choreography, down to the minutiae of the instrumental articulation, allowed the elegant show to burst with humor and pathos. BEMF Festival Dance Company dancers Sonam Tshedzom Tingkhye and Julian Donahue’s expressive physical comedy and elegant movement was a marvel to behold and provided wonderful comic gestures. The menacing dragon, bass-baritone John Taylor Ward, lumbered gracefully around the stage in a delightful costume, interacting with props, scaring the dancers, and causing general mayhem. Although he maintained a pensive menace for most of the opera, he delivered his few lines of singing with a venomous ire befitting of a violent beast. Even the most serious moments had a tinge of self-awareness that made them come off as utterly ridiculous, and it is this highlighting of the juxtaposition between the serious and the nonsensical that made the production such an engaging delight.
The musicians also often were grinning broadly, at one point even being coaxed by Moore of Moore-Hall into collectively sharing a glass of spirits. By the finale of Act II, bassist Doug Balliett (who had spent most of Act I executing some of the most technically demanding bass passages I have even witnessed in a work either serious or comedic) practically used his instrument as a dance partner, bouncing back and forth with ebullient joy. Concertmaster Robert Mealy lead the ensemble adeptly through the intricacies of the score which, although often sparse enough to leave room for the vocal gymnastics of the singers, was spectacularly articulated with natural horns (played robustly and gracefully by Todd Williams and Nathanael Udell), oboes and recorders (Kathryn Montoya and Gonzalo X Ruiz) and percussion (Michelle Humphreys). The Stubbs- and O’Dette- led continuo rounded out the ensemble. I particularly enjoyed the raucous harpsichord riffs from Michael Sponseller, running his hand up and down the keyboard in the finale in a percussive manner, and the subdued but articulate harp playing of Maxine Eilander, which lent an air of tenderness to the slower, softer moments.
BEMF’s production gave us the license to view something we often take quite seriously in a new way and to laugh not only at the jokes contained within the libretto but also at the self-seriousness of the entire enterprise of early music. A room of 21st-century individuals were laughing earnestly at something which we also revere. As Gaffer Gubbins (Douglas Williams) reminded us in a spoken soliloquy at the close, art should provide the human soul with encouragement. The Dragon of Wantley thus gave voice to the intense passion of love and the simple joys of laughing while sharing a drink with good company.