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John Gay: The Beggar's Opera
04 Oct 2009

John Gay: The Beggar's Opera

The only thing truly operatic in this work is the use of the word “opera” in the title.

John Gay: The Beggar's Opera

Macheath: Roger Daltrey; Peachum: Stratford Johns; Mrs. Peachum: Patricia Routledge; Polly Peachum: Carol Hall; Lucy Lockit: Rosemary Ashe; Beggar: Bob Hoskins; Player: Graham Crowden; Filch: Gary Tibbs; Lockit: Peter Bayliss; Jenny Diver: Isla Blair. The English Baroque Soloists. John Eliot Gardiner, conductor. Jonathan Miller, producer and director.

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As the excellent Burkhard Dersch booklet essay, translated into English by Hugh Keith, states, with The Beggar’s Opera librettist John Gay and composer Johann Christoph Pepusch “created a new type of musical theater…” Indeed, the work came about at least partly, if not wholly, as a satiric response to the then ruling popularity of the elaborate foreign entertainment known as Italian opera, the most famous proponent of which being Georg Frederich Handel. In Gay’s work, quite a hit in its time, the lower class of England takes the stage, speaking in elevated language about the seedy goings-on in their lives, and occasionally breaking out into song, primarily of a simple, folk-based nature. Perhaps the best way to get to know the essence of this work is to turn to the 20th century adaptation by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera. The tunes are certainly better.

In 1983 the BBC hired Jonathan Miller to film Gay’s work with a strong cast of singing actors, with the exception of the role of Macheath, where Roger Daltrey of The Who proved himself to be a very effective acting singer. Bob Hoskins has a minor role at the work’s opening and closing as he and a “Player” (Graham Crowden) break the fourth wall and discuss the action before and after it takes place. Fans of the sort of British comedies PBS replays for US audiences may recognize Patricia Routledge. All the cast perform with the sort of detailed professionalism one comes to expect from British artists, and they sing well enough, considering the light demands of Pepusch’s music. They have excellent support, at any rate, from The English Baroque Soloists under Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s leadership.

The film has been well preserved, both in visual and audio terms. The appeal, however, will probably be limited to those with a keen interest to what turned out to be a passing fad. The success of The Beggar’s Opera seemed to put an end to Handel’s career, but he bounced back. And The Beggar’s Opera then slipped, or perhaps oozed, into obscurity, while eventually Covent Garden returned to being a first-class presenter of Italian opera.

Miller’s film does well by the work, no doubt, but it’s a long two hours. The song interludes are mostly very brief, and none of the characters has much appeal. For the ears of your reviewer, the high-pitched caterwauling of most of the female cast and the tongue-swallowing mumbles of many of the males became tiresome very quickly. Strangely, although most of the dialogue is produced with clarity, the English subtitles provided differ much of the time, being not just shorter but having divergent vocabulary. That becomes a distraction in itself, so better not to have the subtitles on, even at the risk of losing a phrase or two to inaudibility from time to time.

There’s a reason this once very popular work seldom returns to the stage, even in the UK. Nonetheless, this BBC film makes an excellent testament to its historical importance.

Chris Mullins

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