The Beggar's Opera - Royal Opera House Linbury Studio, 22 January 2009
After some harsh first night reviews for The Beggar's Opera, I was prepared for the worst. Some went so far as to say the ROH should have chosen a different arrangement of John Gay's 1729 words in place of Britten's. And it does seem the show's problems rest as much with the source material as with this new production by Justin Way. No surprise that it's one of Britten's least-performed works. But as the latest episode in the ROH's one-a-year slog through the entire Britten operatic opus, it had to be tackled sometime.
The question is why they stuck so reverentially to the original 1948 performing version. The issue is not the music itself. Britten's arrangements of the tunes (all that remains of the original 18th century songs) are spare and lively if not quite dripping with invention. They don't need changing in any way, and Christian Curnyn presented them ably enough from the pit.
The problems start when the music stops. There's just too much chat between songs. Partly Gay's original, partly added in 1948 by the producer of the first performances, it dates and clutters the opera, adding little in dramatic or structural terms. The performers here didn't stand a chance, but even Ian McKellen would have had his work cut out with these lines. Savage pruning would have been perfectly justified. Or why not even a re-write? We accept the loosest of translations for foreign operas - why not do the same for an English one? That's why Brecht and Weill's more drastic reinvention of the original, Die Dreigroschenoper, works over and over again. They scrubbed the slate clean and created not just an arrangement or a German version, but a complete adaptation, one that speaks to the audiences of our day just as it did to theirs.
The production never quite clears the hurdles that the raw material imposes. With a mock-up of Covent Garden's main house seating on stage, the implication is that we the viewers are behind the velvet curtain, watching the 'audience'. It's adeptly done, but why? Ditto the barely-signalled near-future setting, which, the fashion police will observe, is costumed more like 2004 (fake Juicy suits? pls...). It's striving for happeningness, but fundamentally it's straight alt.Opera, nothing more than a fresh coat of paint. Plenty of ideas but not enough discipline or focus.
At least the individual performers emerged with some credit - when they weren't chewing through ye olde dialogue anyway. The singers managed better with the speech than the one actor on stage, Sirena Tocco's omnipresent (why?) Beggar. Never was a name (it means 'siren touch' in Italian) less apt. Dressed for some obscure reason as a ROH usher she muttered her lines incomprehensibly and generally looked embarrassed to be there.
Tom Randle's suave Macheath was got up as that old Miami Vicer Roberto Alagna - given the original work's intention to puncture the egos of the 18th century's most prominent opera stars, I'm not certain this is entirely coincidental. Fortunately we were spared the accompanying Angelaness, though we did get a brothel full of assorted tarts in Soho's finest secks-wear.
Jeremy White as Peachum and Donald Maxwell as Lockit gave the dialogue some Chas'n'Dave gorblimey humour, and Susan Bickley made Mrs Peachum a convincing Walford matriarch - though it was odd to hear them revert to conservatory-trained RP for the singing. But it was Frances McCafferty's brief appearance as Mrs Trapes, a Beryl Cook-shaped Scot, that nearly stole the show.