John Gay's The Beggar's Opera
created a theatrical revolution in London in 1728. It lampooned the conventions of Italian opera seria--then the reigning form of musical theatre in London--by putting the genre's aristocratic attitudes and high-flown sentiments into the dialogue of thieves, beggars, cutthroats, and prostitutes and by making it painfully clear that petty greed, vanity, and jealousies, not the noble sentiments uttered by operatic heroes, were what motivated its plot. For the elaborately structured da capo arias and rhetorical recitatives of opera seria, it substituted spoken dialogue and popular tunes of the time with new, satirical lyrics. It was sensationally popular because it was in touch with the contemporary environment.
Today, nearly three centuries later, it requires some historical background for complete enjoyment. Only a few of the tunes are still familiar, and for American audiences, subtitles might occasionally be useful. Some of the characters, representing small-time underworld operators, have Cockney accents almost as impenetrable as the German, Italian, or Russian heard in other opera videos. But the performance is superbly styled and it grows more enjoyable with repeated hearings. The cast includes some highly skilled stars of British TV who slip easily into a baroque equivalent of their sitcom experience. For Americans, the best-known cast member is Roger Daltrey (of the rock group the Who), perhaps better-known for Tommy than for The Beggar's Opera. --Joe McLellan