Benjamin Britten’s take on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera is coruscatingly original, yet its only airing scheduled for this centenary year – courtesy of young singers from the European Opera Centre - has briefly come and gone in Liverpool. And if it wasn’t an unalloyed success, Bernard Rozet’s production did at least make a valiant attempt to engage with the multiple challenges which this remake of a remake presents.
Knitting seventy English folk songs into a raunchy tale of sex and violence in the shadow of the gallows, Gay and his co-creator Christoph Pepusch set out to parody the Italian operas which were all the rage in 18 century London, and their ballad-opera was the hit of 1728. Many updatings of it were subsequently made, with the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera marking a high point.
Then Britten took the bait: if the doomed anti-hero Macheath chimed with his sympathy for social outcasts, the songs exerted an even more powerful appeal. He noted how close these were to the music of Purcell and Handel, with their leaping intervals, their peculiar modes, and their ‘strange and severe’ moods; his own settings of them were faithful to the melodies, but laced with a wonderfully unexpected array of instrumental textures.
Reacting against the expensiveness of opera in the Forties, he envisaged the drama as unfolding for a participatory audience of beggars, with no sets or costumes, and this became the cue for Rozet’s production in the Epstein Theatre’s charmingly restored Edwardian auditorium, where the only props were a leather sofa and some rickety chairs.
But the ‘beggar’ who introduced this tale (Stephen Colfer) was a cool kid from the world of alternative comedy, and the language he and the other characters spoke, in playwright Robert Farquhar’s newly-written linking dialogue, was colourless. Add to that the fact that there was no sense of place – Northern accents came and went – and the suspension of disbelief became difficult; Gay’s evocations of gaming houses, Newgate gaol, and Tyburn went for naught.
If Rozet and his singers laboured largely in vain to extract laughs from their script, musically this was an exhilarating evening. While players from the Liverpool Philharmonic – conducted in a baton-passing exercise by Richard Farnes and Nicolas Andre – drew out the beauty of the score, Michelle Daly, Daire Halpin, Rosie Aldridge, and Alexander Sprague led a very sparky cast.