Listening to Britten – The Beggar’s Opera, Op.43


Painting of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, Act 5 by William Hogarth

The Beggar’s Opera, Op.43 – A ballad-opera by John Gay (1728) realized from the original airs (December 1947 – May 1948, Britten aged 34)

Dedication James Lawrie (Board member of the English Opera Group, chairman from 1950 – 1960
Text John Gay, edited and embellished by Tyrone Guthrie
Language English
Duration 110′

Audio and Video clips

The entire opera can be watched in this 1963 BBC TV broadcast, recently uploaded to YouTube. The cast includes Roger Jerome, David Kelly, Bernard Dickerson, Anna Pollak, Dame Janet Baker, Kenneth McKellar, Bryan Drake, Heather Harper and other members of the English Opera Group. The English Chamber Orchestra is conducted by Meredeth Davies.

Selected clips from the recording made by the City of London Sinfonia and Christian Curnyn for Chandos, with Thomas Randle and Susan Bickley, can be heard on Amazon.

Background and Critical Reception

‘Three operas at the rate of one a year – the cumulative total of their duration represents some 5 hours 49 minutes of continuous music according to the composer’s own timings! – is prodigality indeed.’

So writes Donald Mitchell, noting Britten’s extraordinary creativity in the years of 1946 to 1948, when the English Opera Group required not just his input as a composer, but with policy, administration, touring and conducting.

The Beggar’s Opera was the third of a ‘trilogy’, begun by The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring, where Britten collaborated with the artist John Piper (set design) and the writer Eric Crozier (libretto and stage direction) among many others. Yet his task with this opera was a little easier than the others, as he already had some source material with which to work.

John Gay may have written the libretto for The Beggar’s Opera, but he did not write the tunes. Instead he used popular songs of the day, creating what became known as a ‘ballad opera’.

Michael Kennedy, writing the booklet notes for the City of London Sinfonia’s recording on Chandos, explains how the opera contains twenty-eight traditional ballads or folksongs, twenty-three Irish, Scottish and French songs, and the rest drawn from Purcell, Handel and several other, making a total of sixty-nine. The overture was attributed to the composer baroque composer Pepusch, but for his version Britten wrote a new one.

Britten himself remarked that, ‘I feel that most previous arrangements have avoided their toughness and strangeness and have concentrated only on their lyrical prettiness’. With the help of Tyrone Guthrie he also turned his attention to Gay’s text, updating a little of it and reordering the principal character’s arrest from the end of the opera to the end of Act One.

In the opera, Mr and Mrs Peachum discover that one of his principal clients, the highwayman Macheath, has secretly married their daughter Polly. They resolve to kill him for his money, but he has disappeared. However Mr Peachum resorts to catch Macheath, a notorious womaniser, by means of a honey trap in a tavern. The mission is successful, and Macheath is captured – but escapes by seducing the jailer’s daughter and promising to marry her. However the jailer and Mr Peachum discover Macheath and resolve to have him hanged and split the profits.

Things get worse for Macheath, who is now suspected of impregnating four women, and he prepares to face the gallows. Yet because the audience demands a happy wedding (so says the narrator, the Beggar!) Macheath is reprieved and marries Polly.

The first performance was by the English Opera Group at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge, on 24 May 1948. The ensemble was essentially that used for The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring, with Peter Pears taking the part of Macheath – traditionally a baritone role – and Nancy Evans that of Polly Peachum.

Eric Roseberry, writing in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, concludes that ‘not only is it a compendium of his folk/national song-arranging techniques, but it becomes a Britten opera in its own right through the composer’s more or less ‘free’ treatment of his material, combining, reshaping it into duets, ensembles, whole scenes and the provision where necessary of his own music – link passages, melodrama, introductions, codas and the like. For him, Britten dispenses with pastiche, though he is indebted to the example of neo-classical Stravinsky, as absorbed in The Rape of Lucretia.

The last word goes to Donald Mitchell again. ‘The Beggar’s Opera is not a ‘sport’ among Britten’s operas but an integral part of the totality of theatrical works, from Paul Bunyan to Death in Venice, that was his prodigiously rich legacy. As for the plot, are we surprised that Britten’s imagination was excited by it? After all Macheath is another of Britten’s doomed heroes, tormented by love, the victim of treachery, and only saved in the nick of time by the conventions of ‘opera’ coming to his rescue. It was a release Britten permitted none other of his tragic heroes to enjoy.’

Thoughts

The Beggar’s Opera does still sound incredibly dated, but that is more due to its libretto than its music – and in any case, it is as well to consider that most drama series on TV of late have been set in much older times – so in a sense it is not out of date at all.

Britten’s music helps. The overture gives an indication of what is in store, with some terrifically taut writing for the small instrumental group that he has now become accustomed to writing for. In the course of this short, concentrated curtain-lifter he offers profiles of all the characters. Unfortunately not too many of them are likeable!

There are many redeeming features, however. O Polly, you might have toyed… is a duet of real delicacy between Polly and her mother, while in the second act, Polly’s Cease your funning has a grace and lightness that would not be out of place in Offenbach, the music melting as the voices fade away.

It almost goes without saying that Britten harnesses his instrumental forces with considerable flair. The colouring as POlly sings ‘I love him, I cannot survive him’ in the first act, with tremolo on the flute and melted string chords, is one instance, the trills of the violin alongside Macheath singing ‘If the heart of a man is depressed with cares’ another. Then the dramatic timpani and bass strings glissandi, as Macheath is condemned to the gallows, is brilliantly done.

At the climax of the opera there is an effective appropriation of Greensleeves before the frenzied and surprisingly powerful finish given the meagre orchestral forces, turning at the last to a happy ending of sorts.

Yet the problem with the words themselves recurs. What doesn’t help hugely is the pacing. The long passages of spoken dialogue, while central to the plot, are quite unhelpful from a musical sense, and are better experienced visually, such as in the video clip above.

I also found the overuse of the words ‘slut’, ‘hussy’ and ‘wench’ distracting, for those words carry more objectionable meaning than they might have done in Gay’s time, and aren’t as humourous as they might be. Meanwhile some of the ‘fa la la’ passages as Mrs Trapes sings ‘In the days of my youth’ brought the images of David Walliams and Matt Lucas all too close to hand. Little Britten, perhaps?!

So I don’t think I will be returning to The Beggar’s Opera with great frequency or relish, for it feels very much like a document of its time. But it gave Britten yet more dramatic experience with the English Opera Group, and it further illustrates his ability to work within very specific performing means, a discipline he learned with the film scores. It would yield much more substantial results in future years.

Recordings used

CD

Philip Langridge (Macheath), Anne Collins (Mrs Peachum), Robert Lloyd (Peachum), Ann Murray (Polly Peachum), Chorus and Orchestra / Steuart Bedford (Decca)

Tom Randle (Macheath), Susan Bickley (Mrs Peachum), Jeremy White (Peachum), Leah-Marian Jones (Polly Peachum), Chorus and City of London Sinfonia / Christian Curnyn (Chandos)

Both these versions are excellent, aided by some superb playing in the instrumental ensemble that really brings Britten’s score to life.

Steuart Bedford’s is perhaps the most convincing version thanks to his very distinctive soloists. Anne Collins and Anne Murray, as Mrs Peachum and her daughter, are superb and very clear. Philip Langridge could perhaps me even more mischievous than he is but he does sing incredibly well as Macheath. Meanwhile Robert Lloyd, as Peachum, has an incredibly sonorous and low pitched voice.

The Chandos recording for Christian Curnyn is a little wider in scope, but the instrumentalists faithfully recreate Britten’s colourful score, the start of ‘A Maid is like the Golden ore’ being a good example. The spoken word passages are very well done too.

Spotify

Very unusually there are no available versions of The Beggar’s Opera on Spotify. However audio clips can be accessed above, along with the complete opera in a BBC broadcast on YouTube.

Also written in 1948: Shostakovich — From Jewish Folk Poetry, Op.79

Next up: The Little Sweep, Op.45

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