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MUSIC / A low-life approach to high art: Bayan Northcott surveys the unique history of The Beggar's Opera as the Britten version finally appears on CD

'It will do - it must do] I see it in the eyes of them,' exclaimed the Duke of Argyll half-way through the opening act. And of course it did. From its premiere at the Theatre Royal in Lincoln's Inn Fields on 29 January 1728, The Beggar's Opera proceeded to break all records: running 62 nights in the first season, rapidly getting taken up all over the country, to say nothing of the colonies, and inspiring an entire genre of so-called ballad operas. Fifty years, and countless revivals later, even Dr Johnson had to concede, 'Whether this new drama was the product of judgement or of luck, the praise of it must be given to the inventor.' Yet that characteristic quibble surely reflected more than just his fairly low opinion of the poetic talents of John Gay. Much of the fascination of The Beggar's Opera from the very start seems to have turned on the puzzle of what kind of piece it really is.

Its origins were fortuitous enough. As he toiled over The Dunciad in the spring of 1727, Alexander Pope found himself entertaining at Twickenham not only the easy-going Gay, but the morose Jonathan Swift on what was to prove his final trip to England from the Dublin deanery to which the Whigs had banished him. Swift now revived an old suggestion of 'what an odd, pretty sort of thing a Newgate Pastoral might make' and Gay duly set to work on an 'opera' inverting the conventions of morality and high culture in a comedy of low life. It seems his failure to secure a long- anticipated court sinecure following the death, that summer, of George I may have sharpened his usually smooth quill. By the time the text was finished Pope and Swift were worried while Congreve, to whom it was shown, declared, 'It would either take greatly, or be damned confoundedly.'

The focus of their disquiet was Gay's all-too-apparent attack on England's seemingly eternal prime minister, Robert Walpole, in the character of Captain Macheath. The joke went home: Walpole, present at the first night, pretended to laugh and took rapid steps to have Gay's Beggar's Opera sequel, Polly, banned. Yet the text notoriously resists any coherent realisation as a political, social or moral satire; nor does it imply any amelioration to the abuses it so casually exposes. The class context remains ambiguous; the tone seems to veer between the cynical and the sentimental; the ending of the plot is outrageously inconsequential. And while early audiences were doubtless entranced by a degree of real-life verisimilitude they had rarely seen on the stage, nothing dates more quickly from one age to another than conventions of theatrical realism.

The received notion that The Beggar's Opera also represented a decisive attack on the craze for Italian opera - dominated in London by Handel - is also difficult to sustain. Though he played the recorder and was evidently able to fit new, often ironically parodistic words to an existent tune, Gay was no composer. It is probable he originally intended the resulting numbers to be sung by the actors unaccompanied, and the late Stephen Oliver used to argue fiercely that this is how The Beggar's Opera should always be done. But the Theatre Royal management insisted on proper accompaniments from the start. How elaborate these may have been is unknown, since the orchestral parts are lost - though the second and third editions of the libretto include a Handelian overture and the addition of simple bass lines to the tunes, attributed to the Prussian emigre composer Dr Pepusch. In any case, Gay's choice of melodies, with or without Pepusch's help, seems to have been primarily based on their familiarity - ranging as they do from old folk tunes out of Playford's Dancing Master, by way of popular Scots and Irish airs, to items of Purcell and Handel himself.

Indeed it is tempting to wonder whether the instant success of The Beggar's Opera rested less on its intrinsic qualities than on its seeming to offer a novel formula that anyone with a line in bouncy dialogue and an ear for a good tune could easily copy. Gay's many imitators certainly seem to have assumed the latter. Yet the fact that almost none of their works has survived - that the subsequent history of the ballad opera has largely comprised revampings of The Beggar's Opera itself - suggests that the piece's curious mixture of deeply traditional melody with an insouciantly nihilistic dramaturgy retains a residual integrity of its own.

It has certainly had to withstand enough, from Dr Arne's early amplifications of the music to the Brecht-Weill Die Dreigroschenoper rewrite which dropped all but one of the original tunes. Twentieth-century versions have veered from the nostalgic Nigel Playfair production - with its sweet Lovat Fraser designs and even sweeter musical arrangements and interpolations by Frederick Austin - which ran at the Lyric, Hammersmith, for 1,463 performances in the early 1920s, to the punk protest of the 1979 Opera Factory production with David Freeman himself as Macheath. True, there have also been attempts to reconstruct an 'authentic' edition, notably by Jeremy Barlow and John Eliot Gardiner in 1983. But, in the context of the work's continuing aptitude for contemporaneous renewal, such scholarship seems a little like shutting the prison door after the beggar has bolted.

Benjamin Britten was not too worried about 'authenticity' when he undertook a new realisation for the chamber forces of his English Opera Group in 1948. But he and his co-adaptor, Tyrone Guthrie, were concerned to rescue the piece's vernacular freshness from the prettifying of Playfair. They also found means of tightening the plot: maintaining Mrs Peachum's baleful influence over the entire action, for instance, where Gay carelessly forgets her after the first act, and introducing the characters in an opening dumb-show which enabled Britten to devise a new pot- pourri overture on their relevant tunes. Admittedly, he avoided the kind of crisp neo-classical objectivity Stravinsky might have brought to The Beggar's Opera (had he not then been working on the by-no-means unrelated Rake's Progress), choosing to retain a generous measure of charm which, in turn, could now be criticised as nostalgic by proponents of the Freeman tendency. Nor has Britten's unashamedly operatic treatment escaped the complaints of those who believe the work should remain essentially a vehicle for actors. Indeed, the public itself has been slow to decide whether it really belongs in the Britten canon at all.

Yet its appearance at last on disc splendidly confounds such doubts; vitally paced as it is by Steuart Bedford, and vividly characterised by a fine cast including Ann Murray as Polly and Philip Langridge as Macheath - even if Michael Geliot's further compression of the dialogue for recording purposes has reintroduced the odd non sequitur. Britten actually retains far more of Gay's tunes than Austin did, combining a handful of them in more extended operatic schemes, but arranging most of them straight. Yet what arrangements] From the acidulated canons of Peachum's 'Through all the employments of life' to the melting echoes of Polly's 'Cease your funning', the settings teem with ingenuities and contrasts; it is as if working with familiar materials released a special fullness and spontaneity of invention. The fact that he completed the entire score - at least a number a day - in a mere two months, while simultaneously touring with Peter Pears, must be one of the major feats of his career. It may be the peculiar challenge of The Beggar's Opera that there can never be a settled, definitive version - but this one deserves to stand as a revelation of the sheer musical skill of Benjamin Britten.

The new recording is on Decca's Argo label (two CDs; 436850-2)