My late father imparted very few words of advice to me, but he did impart one aphorism: one should never sit through any spectacle where one is not allowed to drink or throw things at the stage/orchestra/pitch. Although this belief resulted in a lifetime ban from the Emirates Stadium and every single one of my school plays, having sat through one too many god awful amateur productions myself, I must concede that there’s a certain amount of value in his words. So upon being required to review a university opera in a space which prohibits alcohol, I was gearing up for a repeat of what was darkly referred to in my family as ‘The Third Form Macbeth Incident.’
Opera these days is generally regarded by most with ignorance, if not outright suspicion. Certainly, the Leeds Opera Society made a bold move in choosing a rather obscure, if not esoteric, burlesque opera, The Dragon of Wantley. Written in 1737 by John Frederick Lampe as a riposte to the rather formulaic convention of operas staged in London by the likes of Handel, the opera tells of a small village in Rotherham which, terrorised by the eponymous wyvern, turns to a drunken knight for aid, throwing in the promise of a night with the town’s prettiest young maiden as an incentive. Naturally, of course, the knight has a mistress in tow, unhappy with her new rival. It’s an opera which has, for whatever reason, been largely forgotten, eclipsed by the majesty of Mozart, the exquisiteness of Puccini and the god-awful ubiquity of Gilbert and Sullivan. But in 2013, the dragon has been roused.
The musicality was pulled off with the skill and care which one would expect from a university with such a high musical pedigree, but this is all the more remarkable given the fact that the chorus is not auditioned and made up largely of students from outside of the music department. For this, credit must go to the performers, who clearly enjoyed what they were doing, but particularly to the direction of Chris Roberts, a Ph.D. student who demonstrated a calm and composed control of proceedings which will no doubt stand him in excellent stead for a future career in music. Stagecraft was similarly well pulled off with superb costumes, a generally excellent enthusiasm from the performers and a solid use of limited space and resources. The generally conservative nature of the staging was interspersed with surreal nods to pantomime and popular culture, a wise move which offset the sometimes staid nature of the baroque score and made up for original jokes and references which, although familiar to an eighteenth century audience, would prove anachronistic in any modern staging.
Any show lives or dies by its principle performers, and The Dragon of Wantley was fortunate to boast a small but strong group of leads. Particular credit must go to Chris Pelly as Moore the Knight, demonstrating not only a superb musical talent but also an intuitive grasp of comic timing and expression. Also notable was Bianca von Oppell, whose subtle performance was backed up by a wonderful voice which belied her young age. But a personal highlight would have to be the belated arrival of the rather camp (and Teutonic!) dragon, who stole the show with a mincing, pouting, and altogether wonderfully silly delivery, and a demise which would make Sean Bean proud.
This was not a show without its flaws. Baroque music is often criticised for its repetitive nature, and certain parts of this show, particularly the closing of the first act, would have benefited from being significantly shortened. Fortunately the skill of the performers neutralised any acute feelings of tedium, but any subsequent staging would require a red pen and cuts. The humour, although generally well executed, very occasionally descended into puerility, an unnecessary reminder that this otherwise highly professional production was being staged by students. Furthermore, the choice of Monty Pythonesque coconut horses, although a source of mirth to the most in the audience, struck me as slightly too tacked on to be convincing; the show itself was strong enough to manage without a reference which has become, frankly, overdone. But these, I must stress, are peripheral gripes which should not detract from an otherwise excellent performance.
Overall I must credit the Opera Society with staging a performance which was not only outstanding musically but also nicely staged. The show’s director, Claudia Chapman, can regard this as a job well done in reviving a forgotten piece of operatic history in a competent and composed manner, which, without taking itself too seriously, managed to entertain a young reviewer with the tolerance of an angry dragon, the constitution of a drunken knight and the irritability of a jilted mistress. Nice one, chaps.