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The Beggar's Opera
and The Threepenny Opera

Trinity College of Music, Greenwich at Blackheath Great Hall, 23 & 24 June 2006

John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (edited and arranged by Jeremy Barlow) and Brecht/Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera

Two hundred years separate the first performances of The Beggar's Opera and Brech/Weill's The Threepenny Opera, which the ever enterprising Trinity College of Music put on back to back, following closely on the heels of the world premiere of Frederic Rzewski's The Road given by some thirty professional and student pianists headed by Ian Pace and the composer, in an over-twelve hours marathon relay, all in one day.

The savagery of Gay's original version was pleasingly uninhibited at Blackheath Halls. The cast doubled many of the parts and served as scene shifters in a well observed production by Pete Harris,which brought out all its wit and pertinent politicality; rooted in the early 18 C, but with plenty of resonances for today. Harris was well supported by his team, with simple stage equipment but lavish costuming, which extended to the expert period orchestra under the disciplined direction of Philip Thorby; their contribution raised the whole to a superior level,

Morals, of an upside-down variety, ruled the mores, only to be let down by feminine frailties. The wallet takes precedence over the heart. The colluding fathers of misguided and impressionable daughters, mutually suspicious friends and rivals, exploit their "workers" and prison inmates alike to an understanding designed to profit both. They were embodied convincingly by two tough singing actors, Claire Troth and Stephanie Seeney. Macheath was the personable baritone John Savournin, for whom we'd predict a starry future. Both his "wives", Abbi Temple & Rose Bell, dissimulated and scrapped convincingly, turn and turn about, and delivered their songs with aplomb, making sure that everyone heard enough of the words without resorting to amplification.

The Threepenny Opera, which Brecht constructed to illustrate that “low life” is in fact a mirror of wider society (over 4000 performances within a year - its song Mack the Knife made it famous; it was last staged locally at The Albany Theatre in 2002) was less gratifying to our ears because of directors Jonathan Cocker and Robert Purvis's reliance on unsubtle amplification with radio-mics all too visible; an inconspicuous degree of enhancement (such as is currently being notably achieved in ENO's Nixon in China) was desirable, given the wind dominated scoring including a fifteen-piece jazz combo.

The programme book reminded us that John Gay's The Beggar's Opera was performed more than any other piece in the eighteenth century and had at least one production every year between 1728 and 1886. That makes it, perhaps, less surprising that Seen&Heard, whilst I was its editor, reviewed four versions seen in London during its own first year [October 1999, Bridewell Theatre; December 1999 Broomhill Opera (Lloyd). April 2000 The Villains' Opera at National Theatre; June 2000 Gay/Britten at Guildhall School of Music & Drama]

I believe readers will find interesting comparisons by following these links to diverse productions of an imperishable favourite - they have been organised with immediate automatic return to this page.

The present can easily overshadow memories from the past but, trying to make all allowances, I can say that the Gay/Pepusch/Barlow reconstruction at Blackheath Halls of the original sound of The Beggars' Opera, and with many felicities in the economical staging by Pete Harris's team, is my favourite because of the restoration by Jeremy Barlow of as close to an original version of the music as one can reasonably expect, given by TCM's expert Early Music specialists, in period costume, under the inspiring direction from the harpsichord of Philip Thorby.

Jeremy Barlow directs his recommendable version of The Beggars' Opera, with The Broadside Band and a distinguished cast, on Hyperion CDA66591/2. The Beggar & The Player are taken by Bob Hoskins and Ian Caddy, and the dialogue is otherwise entrusted to the singers, some of whose speaking voices are actually not quite as convincing as those in TCM's uninhibited student cast at Blackheath.


© Peter Grahame Woolf