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Culture Reviews
Pyramus & Thisbe (or Fatal Love) - John Frederick Lampe
By Neil McGowan
It’s somewhat shaming, as a Brit myself, to find that works like Pyramus & Thisbe are going into regular repertoire in Moscow, when you cannot hear them in London for love nor money. John Frederick Lampe was an adopted Englishman – originally hailing from Brunswick, and completing his musical studies in Hamburg. Pyramus & Thisbe first appeared in 1745 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (the Helikon’s program-notes wrongly mention that it was at Covent Garden, an opera-house which didn’t exist at the time - the Italian Opera was at the King’s Theatre in Haymarket). Lampe is more widely known (although not by much) for his more famous mock-tragic opera The Dragon Of Wantley, and he seems to have been a master of the burlesque – both operas lampoon the stylistic excesses of Italian Opera of the period. Pyramus & Thisbe sets the “mechanicals” play from Midsummer Night’s Dream in its entirety, although as a standalone work. To make some kind of sense of the missing characters, Bottom’s part is renamed “Mr Semibreve” – an ambitious and garrulous impresario, presenting his new “English Opera” to a Lady & Gentleman Of Quality – all spoken roles. At this period – and right through until the 1820’s – the audience expected a Double Bill every night, and even after long Shakespearian tragedies the management was obliged to produce a one-act “Afterpiece”, usually a comic musical item, of which Lampe’s works are fine examples.

This is music of real quality, not a mere “neglected composer show”. Julian Gallant – more usually to be found at the music-desk of the Russian Chamber Orchestra of London – had come to Moscow especially to rehearse the piece, and directed with verve from the harpsichord. His continuo-playing added much to the evening, with some sparkling and stylish ornamentation. Similarly, the da capo arias (a format which Lampe revels in parodying) came out nicely ornamented on the da capo sections, a sign of Mr Gallant’s expert hand in the performing edition.

The Helikon Chamber Orchestra were concealed on the tiny set behind some hilarious bushes and shrubbery, but this was merely a prelude to more inventiveness from Igor Nezhny and Tatiana Tulubieva on the magnificent costumes. The Wall was a vast, wobbling rubber-jelly wall, complete with trailing ivy, in which Mikhail Seryshev pranced, scampered and danced. It was 26C outside, and in the C19th Salon in which the performance took place, it must have been hellishly hot inside a rubber-jelly wall…. Seryshev is an artist we mainly know in such roles as Bardolph, so it was a revelation to hear him flitting lyrically around the coloratura sections. He reappeared shortly after as the Man In The Moon, now clad in a ludicrous grave-diggers outfit straight from Young Frankenstein. Nikolai Dorozhkin and Anna Grechishkina – who had paired each other in the Helikon’s last C18th work, Gretry’s “Pierre le Grand” – reprised their excellent double act as Lampe’s protoganists. Grechishkina played Thisbe as a stage-struck canary, pausing to bat her eyelids wantonly at the audience mid-aria, and with a welter of hilariously exaggerated histrionics at the Lion’s appearance that richly deserved warm applause. Dorozhkin had the more difficult task of being “the straight man” – the humour in his role is the monstroustly over-written pseudo-italianate arias, with extended passage-work sections on ridiculously banal words or inappropriate syllables, and he accomplished all this with aplomb. There cannot be many Handelian tenors who can also knock-off the tenor lead in “Mazeppa” just weeks earlier? The fourth and last of the singing roles is the Lion – sung from inside a super pantomime lion’s costume by Mikhail Davydov. His rumbustious roarings still allowed him to slip into the audience to menace young children and pretty girls, all the while singing “Pray, do not fright ye!”. Although we probably know the Britten setting of this mock opera better, Lampe’s material is well worth reviving. Pyramus’s aria “Now, I am dead!” was delivered with deadpan seriousness, and a series of fake endings in which the self-impaled hero pops back for just one or two more notes of comic woe.

The musical numbers were all sung in well-delivered English, but the spoken dialogue (sung recitative was in fact the legal monopoly of the Italian Opera at the time, and couldn’t be presented in any other London theatre due to arcane rulings) was translated into elegant and amusing Russian. Dmitry Korotkov played croquet whilst discussing the scenery, Yuri Ustiugov was a top-hatted toff who believes himself to be very witty, and Leonid Varichenko gave a bravura Pantomime Dame of the Society Lady in drag. The clever translation even managed some topical puns, when the impresario decried other “new operas” one might hear – the New Opera being one of Helikon Opera’s rival companies in Moscow. The whole confection was splendidly assembled by producer Alexander Borodovsky, and the audience were treated to English Tea & Biscuits served by English-speaking lackeys during the Overture. Hot on the heels of Verdi’s Macbeth, and preceding Shostakovich’s “Lady”, the Helikon seem on an unstoppable roll this season – expectations for The Makropoulos Case premier (for which Rozhdestvensky is coming out of retirement specially) are running high. And milk in your tea is possible an even greater rarity than Lampe operas in Moscow.

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