BENJAMIN BRITTEN - BEGGARS OPERA,THE
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
there isn't a lot to see. Nor are there any staging tricks or modern interpretations
of anything: it's The Beggar's Opera set forth very plainly in eighteenth-century
costumes, though of course the version is Britten's sophisticated arrangement of
the tunes. What makes this DVD compelling is the cast, a very musical troupe, and
all fine actors as well. Kenneth MacKellar, the Macheath, was mainly known for
his recordings of Scots songs (and his Caliph in the Decca studio cast of Kismet),
but he plays a very game prince of thieves, something like a Restoration Comedy
hero. And Janet Baker and Heather Harper make this performance a must for
Britten fans, for they worked with the composer on various projects. There's a
certain magic, too, in revisiting ancient BBC tapes--and you know this is
live TV, because at one point, when Baker and MacKellar are together, a curtain
closes behind them but gets caught on MacKeller's shoulder, and Baker brushes
it back without missing a beat. A charming moment.
The original notion of such an opera came from Jonathan Swift, who wrote to Alexander Pope in 1716 asking "...what think you, of a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there?" Their friend, Gay, decided that it would be a satire rather than a pastoral opera. For his original production in 1728, Gay intended all the songs to be sung without any accompaniment. However, before the opening night, John Rich, the theatre director, insisted on having Johann Christoph Pepusch, a composer associated with his theatre, write a formal French overture and also to orchestrate the 69 songs. It's of interest that the circle of gay blades around Pope and Swift also included the young George Frideric Handel, whose Italian operas were precisely what Gay's ballad-opera chose to mock.
A commemorative "score" of the entire opera was assembled and published quickly. As was common, this consisted of the fully-arranged overture followed by the melodies of the 69 songs, supported by only the simplest bass accompaniments. There are no indications of dance music or accompanying instrumental figures. The absence of the original performing parts has allowed arrangers free creative reign. The tradition of personalized arrangements, dating back at least as far as Thomas Arne's later 18th century arrangements, has continued to the present, running the gamut of musical styles from Romantic to Baroque.
Benjamin Britten's 'arrangement' of 1948 is so original and ample that it really constitutes a 'modern opera' in its own right. It's a brilliant synthesis of 18th C musical manners and formulae with Britten's own distinctively darkling style. Dark and gritty the music is, a quality fully rendered visible in the rags and tatters of this black-and-white filming of a production staged in 1963. Everything blends here - the costumes, the stagecraft, the cinematography - to capture the Hogarthian squalor of gin-sodden lower-class London in the early Hanoverian era. This would be a classic black-and-white film, as 'painterly' as Dickens's Christmas Carol, even without the music. But luckily, the acting cast could also sing! In fact, Polly Peachum is sung by Janet Baker, the finest British opera star of her generation. Lucy Lockit is sung very artfully by Heather Harper and MacHeath is sung by Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar. Both Harper and McKellar were luminaries of the light-opera/operetta stage, and they deliver all the snappy snazzy mannerisms of 'musical comedy' while still singing Britten's incisively jagged disharmonies with 'classical' control. An added surprise: the sound recording is quite good, especially for a film intended for Tv broadcast. In fact, the voices are more 'present' and alive-sounding than on many more recent DVDs of staged operas.
This DVD is included in the six-production box set called the Britten-Pears Collection. Buying the whole set is a good deal more economical than buying the individual releases.