Britten’s rarely produced The Beggar’s Opera ran for two performances this past weekend at Longy. No one could have been surprised to hear so many excellent singers and instrumentalists in Emmanuel Music’s staging, since most of them have been long-time members of the estimable with its famous long-running cantata series. Under conductor Ryan Turner and with Nathan Troup’s clever direction and staging, the singers really romped. Everything went right when I heard it on Saturday night; the ending was a happy one, and a good time was had by all.
The title reads: “The Beggar’s Opera, op. 43 (1948) from the original airs of John Gay’s Ballad Opera (1728).” Gay’s romp through some seamy, albeit colorful and vibrant elements of 18th-century London established the ballad opera in which spoken dialogue alternated with musical numbers. Gay’s satirical words, set to some five-dozen well-known traditional and popular tunes, came across variously in brief snippets and longer settings. Though Purcell and Handel borrowings provided some of the tunes, generally folk songs, simple ballads, fiddle tunes and dances prevailed. Gay’s listeners supposedly could have hummed the tunes and identified with the characters. Allan Kozinn (in the NY Times, 1990) pointed out that Gay
…wrote this more as an anti-opera, than an opera, one of its attractions to its 18th-century London public being its lampooning the Italian opera style and the English public’s fascination with it…. If the work’s specificity has faded, the character types are still familiar enough to have served Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill well in their 1928 transformation of the piece (the original plot and characters but with a new libretto and mostly new music) into The Threepenny Opera.
Britten had promised English Opera Group The Beggar’s Opera for its 1948 season, but left little time to work on it. He managed to write the score during a two-month concert tour with Peter Pears. The Beggar’s Opera used the same instruments he had used for EOG’s chamber ensemble, for whom he had already written Albert Herring and The Rape of Lucretia. Britten told a close colleague that he was particularly attracted to its folk melodies and its affinity to Purcell, “as well as the ironies of the piece.” Britten remarked, “I feel that most previous arrangements have avoided their toughness and strangeness and have concentrated only on their lyrical prettiness.” All three of the aforementioned trilogy have significant, treacherous harp parts, navigated here with authority and beauty by Franziska Huhn. (An admiring harpist is writing this review).
We provide Ryan Turner’s synopsis and notes HERE to avoid re-telling the story in our text.
Troup and company built a wide catwalk (down the center of the auditorium) and hung a curtain behind the singers which served as a backdrop for lively projections. In moments of high instrumental drama, it quickly opened to reveal the marvelous and sonorous orchestra and then closed.
As the swashbuckling womanizer and general troublemaker Macheath, tenor Neal Ferreira, made much of this role written for the voice of Peter Pears. He is a superb Britten tenor, and a lot of fun to watch whether with his hilarious hussies, his two girlfriends, or in jail with a noose and handcuffs. I look forward to hearing him more. The impressive bass-baritone David Cushing and soprano Michelle Trainor brilliantly depicted Mr. and Mrs. Peacham with some singing. The gifted soprano Margot Rood’s huge role as Polly Peachum allowed her to show off her acting chops and mellifluous voice. Soprano Carley DeFranco as Lucy Lockit, the jailer’s daughter and the other major love interest of Macheath, was sassy, funny—a joy to watch and to hear. Boston’s beloved baritone Dana Whiteside played Lucy Lockit’s father, not exactly the role he was born to play, but he did himself proud, singing and acting up a storm. The entire chorus satisfied tremendously, but the men’s contingent especially deserves a grateful callout.
Mezzo-soprano Katherin Growdon, tenor Eric Christopher Perry, and baritones Will Prapetis and Ryne Cherry also deserve our thanks. John Kuntz acted as the emcee/Beggar. There was not a weak link in this memorable evening.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.