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John GAY (1685-1732)
The Beggar’s Opera (1728)
Benjamin Purkiss (Macheath), Kate Batter (Polly Peachum), Olivia Brereton (Lucy Lockit), Robert Burt (Peachum), Beverley Klein (Mrs Peachum, Diana Trapes), Kraig Thornber (Lockit), Emma Kate Nelson (Jenny Diver), Sean Lopeman (Filch, Manuel), Gavin Wilkinson (Matt), Taite-Elliot Drew (Jack, Prison guard), Wayne Fitzsimmons (Robin), Dominic Owen (Harry), Natasha Leaver (Molly), Emily Dunn (Betty), Louise Dalton (Suky), Jocelyn Prah (Dolly)
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
rec. Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, 25 and 27 April 2018
OPUS ARTE OABD7283D Blu-Ray [118 mins]

Last year I reviewed a Naxos video production of Purcell’s King Arthur which had many points in parallel with this new release of The Beggar’s Opera (the music arranged by Christoph Pepusch (1687-1752) although the score is universally – and uniquely – credited to the librettist John Gay). In the first place, both are productions by European companies of English baroque works of musical theatre, designed for the stage but lying somewhat outside the usual definition of opera with their extensive spoken dialogue. Secondly, with respect to that dialogue both productions are subjected to extensive overhauls and rewriting by the producers with the intention of providing a more contemporary slant on the plot rather than simply reproducing a period piece which might perhaps otherwise be consigned to a museum. Thirdly, the production and acting are updated to a Brechtian style of the 1950s, coupled with designs and costumes with overtones of 1920s Berlin cabaret. Fourthly, the musical lyrics are left largely untouched as originally written, but are provided with accompaniments that involve a considerable degree of speculative reconstruction. And finally, these musical elements are assigned to a skilful group of period performers, under the direction of experienced specialists in historical period practice. So much for the similarities. The result in Berlin’s King Arthur, as I elucidated at some length in my review last year, was not far short of an unmitigated disaster in all departments. On the other hand this Beggar’s Opera, though not without its incidental problems, is a thoroughly enjoyable and triumphant realisation of the score. So wherein lies the difference?

Well, at the most fundamental level lies the fact that, although The Beggar’s Opera is a comedy while King Arthur is a masque, Robert Carsen’s production takes Gay’s plot totally seriously as a satire on English society of his day and actively seeks to draw analogies with current affairs in the wake of Brexit and Thatcherism. Gay’s scenario revolves around the activities of the highwayman Macheath and his fraught relationships with his two ‘wives’ and their equally criminal parents. The problem with the scenario is that it becomes too easy to identify with the character of the charismatic playboy and treat his in-laws as a collection of pantomime villains. In this production their nefarious activities – drug-dealing, male and female prostitution, blackmail, slavery, paedophilia – are all detailed in nauseating detail while the young and self-consciously good-looking Macheath clearly strikes a sexual bond not only with their daughters but with every other woman he comes into contact with. At the same time the veneer of his charm is clearly only skin-deep, and all Benjamin Purkiss’s bounce and bonhomie cannot disguise the fact at his centre he is as horrendously self-centred and self-seeking as the rest of them. His two ‘fathers-in-law’ Peachum and Lockit are transformed upwards socially, the former becoming a sleazy society lawyer and the latter a corrupt Chief Constable; but Mrs Peachum remains a socially climbing slut, and the other collection of lowlives remain much as with Gay with the exception of the addition of a backbench Tory MP who bears more than a passing resemblance to a more suave version of the late Adrian Edmondson’s Alan B’stard.

It is notable that in the eighteenth century, although the satires directed at Robert Walpole clearly struck home (the offended Prime Minister banned a proposed sequel), Gay avoided setting his sights higher at the aristocracy. It was left to his contemporary Alexander Pope to cross swords with members of the House of Lords – and of course at this stage the new Hanoverian monarchy, often absent abroad, had become almost a political vacuum in domestic affairs. Perhaps Carsen has rather missed a point in making his Peachum and Lockit upwardly mobile members of the ‘lower orders’ rather than the actual Etonians and members of the Bullingdon Club to whom the revised text makes frequent reference. But then perhaps he did not want to belabour the morality too much. One wonders how far French audiences would have understood the ramifications of the English class system – although this production has toured to the Edinburgh Festival.

It will be gathered that the cast here has been assembled for their acting skills rather than their musical abilities, and those who look for a display of coloratura fire in the duet between Polly and Lucy – in the manner of Dames Kiri te Kanawa and Joan Sutherland in the uproariously comic Bonynge set – will be somewhat disappointed by the sketchy singing of Kate Batter and Olivua Brereton. But the former has the right sort of plaintive voice for the hapless Polly in her duets with the suave Purkiss; and Beverley Klein, doubling Mrs Peachum with Diana Trapes, overcomes her basically cabaret vocal production to produce some stonking high notes which come as quite a surprise. Robert Burt and Kraig Thornber as the corrupt representations of law and order produce plenty of comedy and project their words well. Among the supporting cast Emma Kate Nelson stands out as a voluptuous Jenny Diver; and all the singers prove to be accomplished dancers.

The sets are basic in the extreme – a collection of cardboard boxes which the cast themselves assemble and re-assemble to depict various bars, casinos and gaol cells – and the changes of costume help to create atmosphere, moving from the low-life earlier scenes to the upper-crust later ones; Macheath changes his tight Levis for a dinner jacket before setting out for the casino. There are occasional changes of the sung text to delete references to obsolete weaponry, but otherwise Gay’s lyrics are largely left unchanged. Christie and his players provide sterling support, sometimes with a sense of improvisation and always with a rhythmic impulse that proves infectious; and the junctions between spoken dialogue and song are impeccably managed, with never the slightest suspicion of singers groping for the right pitch. The video direction of François Roussillon is excellent, with cameras always pointing where they are needed and a good sense of the theatrical space with the audience surrounding the performers on three sides.

Carsen has jettisoned Gay’s original – and somewhat artificial – framework of two player/actors presenting the plot and providing a deus ex machina so that Macheath can be reprieved from the gallows at the end. Instead he adopts a delightful conceit when the execution is interrupted by an announcement that following the fall of Teresa May’s government a new Labour-led coalition has taken power in which Macheath is to be appointed Minister of Justice (the Tory MP promptly switches his party allegiances). When this production was new, this would of course have been highly topical (and not necessarily totally unbelievable given the May governments persistent inability to muster majorities for its policies in the House of Commons). Now, when the May regime has indeed given way to a new government whose ministers and officials still seem to regard themselves as outside the provisions of the rules designed to regulate their conduct, it has an abruptly incongruous effect. It is notoriously perilous to try to be too up-to-date; one is likely to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly.

Never mind; this is a good romp, and the satirical point of Gay’s original is not lost. Those seeking a Beggar’s Opera for purely musical values will look elsewhere – there are many other editions of this score with casts of wildly differentiated abilities – but for sheer enjoyment this video is going to be hard to beat. There are no extras apart from a brief video gallery of the cast, but there is a booklet containing a synopsis of the plot and an introductory note from Carsen himself. Surtitles come in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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