The neglected Cinderella of Britten's operas, "The Beggar's Opera" (1948) has begun to receive more attention recently. Rightly so, in my opinion:
harmonic and orchestral invention is as strong as in the contemporaneous "Rape of Lucretia" and "Albert Herring," and the way Britten sometimes links several of the short tunes of John Gay's 1728 "ballad opera" into coherent longer sequences is always ingenious and sometimes brilliant. This isn't just an "arrangement," but a provocative modern re-imagining, akin to the composer's very individual treatment of folksongs - and, like these, no doubt destined to remain controversial.
The only complete recording came in 1993 (Argo), with Steuart Bedford leading an excellent orchestra and an experienced cast of singer-actors. For some reason, Decca omitted this from its big Britten boxes, so it was left to Arkiv Music to come to the rescue and reissue it (check their website).
More recently, Pearl has brought out a single CD (in poor off-the-air sound) of a substantial portion of a broadcast of 22 September 1948, the closest to an "original cast recording" we are ever likely to have, though this studio version omits 8 numbers and adapts the spoken text drastically. Still, to hear Peter Pears, Nancy Evans, et al. sing the roles they "created," under Britten's baton, is wonderful.
As is this black-and white version (in mono) from 1963. Be warned, however: this isn't a complete, original studio production like those of "Billy Budd," "Peter Grimes" and "Owen Wingrave" (the last composed for TV) issued in this series, but an abridged (18 of 55 numbers omitted) studio adaptation of the then-new second English Opera Group production. Furthermore, if we are to believe the DVD booklet, it was all shot in a mere 3 hours, and occasionally it shows. Yet the rough edges work just fine for this piece, which after all is very self-consciously an opera being presented on a stage, and a rag-tag low-life one at that: the heavy character make-up that looks grotesque in close-up, the obvious lack of liquid in drinking vessels, even the occasional technical hitch, as when a curtain gets stuck on the tenor's shoulder and the mezzo discreetly unhooks it - all this is completely in the spirit of the piece. Even the slight edge of manic energy verging on exhaustion during the finale feels appropriate.
But what makes it worth seeing and hearing, apart from the late Colin Graham's very lively production - he does some shrewd editing of Gay's original dialogue - is the work of a fine group of singers and instrumentalists under the excellent direction of conductor Meredith Davies. Anna Pollak and David Kelly are a sharp and vinegary pair as the Peachums, Bryan Drake a sonorous Lockit, Joan Edwards a dark-tempered Jenny Diver and Edith Coates an over-the-top Mrs. Trapes. Above all, there is the central love triangle, anchored in tenor Kenneth McKellar's dashing and virile Capt. Macheath, a man capable of both great charm and great cruelty (and some beautiful singing). Lucy Lockit may not give soprano Heather Harper much opportunity to display the full beauty of her voice, but the way she spits out the word "rrrat" in her first number is irresistible. Finally, Janet Baker's Polly is a joy, gorgeously sung and acted with a delicate mix of sincerity and tongue-in-cheek - how lovely to have a souvenir of her comic stage work to put alongside her Julius Caesar, Mary Stuart, Orpheus, two Didos and Britten's Kate ("Owen Wingrave").
Again: though Decca have done what appears to be an excellent job of refurbishing the original tape (especially the audio) don't expect the high technical polish of other titles in this series, and you are likely to find much to enjoy.