Thus, there is little surprise in his taking on a modern realization of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, an undertaking that, as Philip Brett observed, “signifies the culmination of a process of self-conscious rapprochement with history and national identity, part of what Britten thought necessary, as a newly connected and ‘located’ artist, to fulfill his role.” Certainly The Beggar’s Opera claims a special place in the English musical legacy. First performed at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in January, 1728, its satirical volley aimed at Walpole’s administration, the aristocracy, and the Italian opera struck a responsive chord in London audiences—audiences that could have seen it performed an impressive sixty-two times during its first year alone! And London audiences would find it performed annually throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century. The best-known “ballad opera,” The Beggar’s Opera combines spoken dialogue and popular tunes drawn from English ballads, Irish, Scottish, and French airs, and melodies from composers like Purcell, Handel, and Bononcini, all intertwined in a tale of “low life.”
The musical content was originally skeletal—melodies with bass lines devised by Johann Pepusch. Britten’s realization gives the tunes a content-rich accompaniment, employing harmonies, effects, and inflections far-removed from the eighteenth century. Pepusch is left behind here, and what emerges is not a dressed-up neo-classicism—Pepusch with modern spice—but rather a fresh re-imaging of the melodies’ harmonic and dramatic propensities.
Britten created his Beggar’s Opera for performances by the English Opera Group in 1948, the year after its founding by Britten, the artist, John Piper, and librettist-director, Eric Crozier. This present CD offers a digitalized recording made from acetates of the 1948 production. Peter Pears takes the role of Captain Macheath, and it is wonderful to savor his voice in moments of lightness and ease, as in the second act air, “The first time at the looking-glass.” But by and large, the biggest presence on the recording seems to be Britten himself. The radical transformation of the airs through such highly inflected accompaniment transforms the nature of the work itself. In part this has to do with the manner of performance. The amount of “information” in the orchestra goes hand-in-hand with a necessary slowing of the airs, and as a result, one misses their often-times lilting quality. But additionally, the sophistication of the accompaniments and their amount of information transforms the aesthetic from one of engaging popular simplicity to a more complex, multi-layered affair, seemingly rich with meaning and inflection. In short, the eighteenth-century ballad opera has here taken on the language of opera, that which it had originally lampooned.
If one’s interest lies in The Beggar’s Opera itself, the Britten 1948 version will be of only tangential interest, I suspect. But, if one’s interest lies in Britten and his ability to transform and create within the constraints of pre-existent material, this is a rich sample, indeed, and a valuable historical artifact of English musical life in the early years after World War II.