New Sussex Opera at Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne


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.

Lampe’s spoof on Handelian grand opera is brilliantly constructed, built upon Henry Carey’s absolutely scintillating libretto. It leaves no stone of the genre unturned, and Handel himself loved it greatly.

Whereas Handel’s operas take place in classical times, set in exotic locations, Lampe’s opera takes us to a village in South Yorkshire, peopled by common folk instead of great luminaries, and its three acts take half the time of one of Handel’s offerings. The chorus in Handelian opera is generally a minor consideration, a mere assemblage of all the principals creating an ensemble to round off proceedings in the finale; in Lampe it is a major presence right from the start.

Lampe also indulges us with plenty of vocal display, coloratura, fioriture, even embellishment-inviting da capo arias – all set to the most banal words in the English language, thanks to Carey’s wonderful ear for satire.

This, then, is the template for the plot, which involves a community terrified by the predations of a dragon, whom the local squire, Moore of Moore Hall, is the only person capable of vanquishing. The trouble is, Moore does like a drink, so there are difficulties in getting him to do the deed. His mantra, “Zeno, Plato, Aristotle, all were lovers of the bottle” sums him up, as well as attesting to Carey’s tremendous wordsmithing.

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

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