Opera Scotland

Beggar's Opera

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Melodies of traditional ballads and contemporary operatic arias, selected by
John Gay (born Barnstaple, September 1685; died London, 4 December 1732)
And arranged by him with the assistance of
John Christopher Pepusch (born Berlin 1667; died London, 20 July 1752).

John Gay.


First performance: London (Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre), 29 January 1728.
First performance in Scotland: To be confirmed.
Scottish Opera première: Edinburgh (King’s Theatre), 1 September 1981.

The subversive nature of this piece and its use of the simple method of putting new words to familiar melodies made The Beggar’s Opera an instant success. It has been revived regularly ever since, normally with arrangers attempting to adapt it to current taste, with mixed results.

Frederick Austin had an enormous success with his adaptation that opened in London at the Hammersmith Lyric in 1920. It had a long run, being revived almost annually through the twenties. It also had an extensive provincial tour.

This clearly inspired Brecht and Weill to launch their version, The Threepenny Opera, with completely new music, in Berlin in 1928.

Benjamin Britten also made an arrangement in 1948. This uses the original melodies, but attempts to give it more of an operatic character. Recent arrangements have generally been influenced by modern music-theatre tastes, although there are at last indications of an interest in restoring a sense of more authentic period practice. Sadly, the 1981 arrangement staged by Scottish Opera went too far in the wrong direction, producing a cross between an opera and a full-blown musical.

Main Characters
Captain Macheath, a highwayman (baritone or tenor)
Peachum, an informer and ‘fence’ (bass)
Mrs Peachum (mezzo-soprano)
Polly, their daughter (soprano)
Filch, in Peachum’s employment (tenor)
Lockit, the gaoler (baritone)
Lucy, his daughter (soprano)
Mrs Diana Trapes, the ‘tally woman’ (mezzo-soprano)

Plot Summary
Peachum generates some of his income by informing on criminals. He is considering surrendering Macheath to the authorities, and he and his wife are shocked to discover not only that Polly loves the man, but that she has secretly married him.

Polly persuades Macheath to flee. At an inn, planning work with his gang, he is arrested and taken to Newgate, where he is in the custody of Lockit. He had previously seduced Lucy and now agrees to marry her.

Peachum and Lockit agree to divide the reward for the condemnation of Macheath. Polly arrives at Newgate as Macheath and his new wife return. Polly and Lucy argue. After Peachum has removed his daughter, Macheath is able to persuade Lucy to help him. He returns to his gang, but is recognised by Mrs Trapes, who informs on him. Macheath is returned to Newgate, and tried at the Old Bailey. In the condemned cell an operatic ‘happy ending’ is imposed, in the form of a reprieve.


HARMONIA MUNDI (1 CD) Sung in English Recorded 1981
The Beggar’s Opera – Original Songs and Airs

Conductor: Jeremy Barlow
The Broadside Band
Patrizia Kwella (soprano), Paul Elliott (tenor).

This recording is not actually a performance of The Beggar’s Opera. Jeremy Barlow simply takes half a dozen melodies, Scots, French, or English, and shows the various ways in which they were developed and arranged. One starts as a simple folk tune or dance on fiddle or flute; another is a formal melody by Purcell; another a traditional song. Each will be played in two or three different forms. Familiar tunes such as ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ or ‘The Lass of Patie’s Mill’ take on a new life. It is quite fascinating.

EMI Classics for Pleasure (2 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1955

Conductor: Sir Malcolm Sargent
Pro Arte Orchestra
John Cameron & John Neville (Macheath), Elsie Morison & Zena Walker (Polly).
Monica Sinclair & Rachel Roberts (Lucy), Ian Wallace & Eric Porter (Lockit).

This recording is an interesting period piece. It is essentially the Frederick Austin and Arnold Bennett version from 1920 adjusted through a later aesthetic. Gone is the twenties-style pit band, and instead we have quite a large orchestra. It also dates back to a period when singers were not expected to be able to speak dialogue, so all roles are played both by a singer and an actor, usually with little attempt to blend their voices.

In addition to actors of the considerable calibre of John Neville, Rachel Roberts and Eric Porter, we also hear Paul Rogers, Robert Hardy, Ronald Fraser and other familiar names. Singers apart from John Cameron, Elsie Morison, Monica Sinclair and Ian Wallace, include Owen Brannigan, Constance Shacklock, Anna Pollak and Alexander Young. These were all leading British (or Australian) singers of the period too, but Sargent’s direction is somewhat plodding.

The Cast

Ben Budge
 of Macheath's gang
Betty Doxy
 a woman of the town
Bob Booty
 of Macheath's gang
Crook-Fingered Jack
 of Macheath's gang
Dolly Trull
 a woman of the town
 in the tavern
 employee of Peachum
Harry Paddington
 of Macheath's gang
Jemmy Twitcher
 of Macheath's gang
Jenny Diver
 a woman of the town
 the gaoler
Lucy Lockit
 Lockit's daughter
 a highwayman
 in the tavern
Matt of the MInt
 of Macheath's gang
Molly Brazen
 a woman of the town
Mr Peachum
 a 'fence'
Mrs Coaxer
 a woman of the town
Mrs Diana Trapes
Mrs Peachum
Mrs Slammekin
 a woman of the town
Mrs Vixen
 a woman of the town
Nimming Ned
 of Macheath's gang
Polly Peachum
 Peachum's daughter
Robin of Bagshot
 of Macheath's gang
Slippery Sam
 of Macheath's gang
Suky Tawdry
 a woman of the town
Wat Dreary
 of Macheath's gang

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