John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera is a particularly English variant of a form that was widespread in Europe and later in America: known as a “ballad opera,” it is a close cousin to the German singspiel (a stellar example of which is Mozart’s The Magic Flute), the operetta, and the American musical. Gay’s work is also the direct ancestor of the Kurt Weill/Bertold Brecht collaboration Die Dreigroschen Oper, later rendered into English as The Threepenny Opera, which contains the song “Mack the Knife,” recorded and rerecorded by any number of popular singers. All are examples of the “popular culture” of the day, as opposed to the opera seria exemplified by Handel’s Julius Caesar or Mozart’s own Don Giovanni of the same era. Unlike its fellows, and like its distinctly English brethren, however, Gay’s effort made use of the tunes of popular ballads of the day, with words written to fit the play. According to Wadham Sutton’s commentary, we have Jonathan Swift to thank for Gay’s ballad opera – he had written to both Gay and Alexander Pope suggesting “a Newgate pastoral, among the whores and thieves,” opining that it “might make an odd, pretty sort of thing.”
Gay wrote the play and chose the music, not only from popular ballads but also using traditional Irish, Scottish and French dances (and, in fact, plundered the music of such composers as Henry Purcell and Handel himself; he even lifted a line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night). Although he had originally meant the songs to be sung unaccompanied, John Rich, manager of the theater in which the piece was to be performed, pushed for musical accompaniment, pressing into service his music director, Johann Christoph Prepusch, who ultimately scored the opera and wrote an original overture. (This version also contains some new settings and additional music by Frederic Austin.)
The story is a simple one: Macheath, leader of a band of highwaymen and also somewhat of a womanizer, secretly marries Polly Peachum, daughter of a fence. Peachum and his wife, no less greedy than anyone else in this little melodrama, plot to have Macheath arrested, in the hope that his ill-gotten gains will accrue to their daughter. However, Macheath has also been courting Lucy Lockit, daughter of the gaoler at Newgate Prison, where, of course, he is ultimately incarcerated. Lucy and Polly meet, and, although aghast at Macheath’s deception, Lucy helps Macheath to escape; he is recaptured, but the Beggar (spoken by Laurence Hardy) arrives and manages the required happy ending.
Gay’s opera is overtly satirical, not only lampooning the opera seria of the day, but taking on political figures as well: Macheath is a caricature of Sir Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister, and such an effective one that a sequel was banned. Although the context for this intensely topical work is out of reach for most of us, The Beggar’s Opera is also sheer delight. It is indeed an “odd, pretty sort of thing,” from its period opening in which a stage manager announces the opening of the play over crowd noises, a stately Classical overture (which in context is itself very funny), through a series of delightful songs given weight by their settings and bite by their lyrics (although I would have been very grateful for a full text/libretto: English is a peculiarly difficult language to enunciate in an operatic setting, and the songs are sometimes reduced to enjoyable music within which we know someone is singing). The cast, both singers and speakers, are marvelous, even in a recording giving the sense of a true ensemble, with the crisp, articulate delivery that seems to be a strength of British-trained actors alternating with some truly glorious singing. (To give some idea of the strength of this cast, I found myself repeatedly caught by a line or a phrase and scrabbling through the notes, thinking “Who is this?” It was always someone new.)
Sire Edward German was commissioned to complete Sir Arthur Sullivan’s last opera after the distinguished composer’s death in 1901. Although widely hailed as Sullivan’s successor as a composer of light operas for the Savoy Theatre, he never achieved the stature of his illustrious predecessor; he did, however, compose a number of light operas and operettas, among them Tom Jones, based on a bowdlerized version of Henry Fielding’s much racier and more pungently satirical novel and premiered in 1907.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about German’s effort as about Gay’s. I was somewhat put off by it on first listening, although subsequently it did redeem itself to a certain extent. It might be more engaging in a full presentation, and certainly suffers by comparison with The Beggar’s Opera. It is pleasant music, tuneful and engaging, although lacking in bite, and the cast is certainly accomplished: not only the soloists but the chorus as well deliver some tricky passages cleanly and strongly. In fact, the singers are the strength of these highlights. The Madrigal (“Here’s a paradox for lovers”) at the end of Act I is delicious, and Sophia’s solo in Act II, “Love maketh the heart a garden fair,” is lovely in itself and sung with great depth.
A note on English singers: I don’t know if it is the Gilbert and Sullivan tradition, or whether it may just be the sensitivity the British seem to display to the needs of good theater, by I was more than impressed by the soloists on these discs. Not only are their voices perfectly suited to the material, they manage to provide a sound that is both clear and rich. The two baritones in particular, Frederick Harvey and John Cameron, caught my ear. Bravi!
This one is certainly worth having for The Beggar’s Opera and, for those whose taste runs to light-hearted Edwardian fare, the Tom Jones highlights are worth it, especially for the intelligent and sensitive singing.
The Beggar’s Opera: Polly Peachum: Elsie Morrison (soprano)/ spoken by Zena Walker; Macheath: John Cameron (baritone)/John Neville; Lucy Lockit: Monica Sinclair (contralto)/Rachel Roberts; Lockit: Ian Wallace (bass)/Eric Porter; Peachum: Owen Brannigan (bass)/Paul Rogers; Mrs. Peachum, Mrs. Trapes: Constance Shacklock (mezzo-soprano)/Daphne Heard; Filch: Alexander Young (tenor)/Robert Hardy; Jenny Diver: Anna Pollak(mezzo-soprano)/Jane Jacobs; speaking roles: Laurence Hardy, Robert Hardy, Ronald Fraser, Aubrey Morris, Eleanore Bryan, Anne Robson, Loretta Davett; Pro Arte Chorus; Pro Arte Orchestra; John Wills, harpsichord; Sir Malcom Sargent, conductor.
Tom Jones: Tom Jones, Squire Western: Frederick Harvey (baritone); Honoour: Shirley Minty (contralto); Sophia: Cynthia Glover (soprano); Mr. Allworthy: Stanley Riley (bass); Nigel Brooks Chorus; Gilbert Vinter & His Orchestra
(EMI Records, 2003)