The Beggar’s Opera, Epstein Theatre, Liverpool

3.00

 

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.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea