'Back to Basics' for John Gay's 1728 hit ballad opera
Nicholas A. Deutsch | New York, NY USA | 05/12/2005
(3 out of 5 stars)
"This recording seeks to give us a 'Beggar's Opera' uncut, undapted & unexpurgated. That presents big hurdles for modern performers & listeners. A complete performance is roughly 50/50 song & spoken dialogue, which poses a challenge whether one uses actors-who-sing (as in 1728) or singers-who-act (as here) - after all, the piece was conceived as a play punctuated by popular songs with 'parodied' lyrics. Unabridged, the text is full of obsolete words & local references, both geographical & political. Furthermore, there's a whole layer of satire in the musical numbers no longer accessible to us: the original audience would have been tickled by Gay's purloining a famous march from a heroic Italian opera - Handel's 'Rinaldo' - for a chorus of highwayman setting off to rob a coach, just as they would have been titillated to hear the text of Purcell's 'If Love's a Sweet Passion, why does it torment?' replaced by 'When young at the bar you first taught me to score.' But for us, other than 'Greensleeves' none of the tunes - lovely as they are - carries any particular associations.
Back in 1981, Jeremy Barlow & a handful of players from The Broadside Band joined 2 fine singers (Patrizia Kwella & Paul Elliot) in a charming CD that juxtaposed a few of the original songs with Gay's versions (Harmonia Mundi HMA 1951071). This ambitious 1994 follow-up, though well-performed & full of enjoyable moments, is frankly disappointing, & I can't help feeling here & there that everyone has bit off a bit more than they can chew. True, all the singers have been well coached in the dialogue, & all have their good moments - I like Richard Jackson's clenched-teeth Lockit very much - but to my ears only Sarah Walker has the size of personality & technical expertise to nail every single one of her lines square on its head easily. Elsewhere the effort shows, especially in Adrian Thompson's Macheath, which though hardworking lacks charm & charisma - he seems miscast. Sometimes one feels that the cast are treating Gay's text as if it were a serious slice-of-life view of the seamy side of London life, rather than a huge, cynical put-on (like its illustrious descendant, the Kander/Ebb/Fosse musical 'Chicago').
Musically, things are solid, as one would expect, yet even here I would question Barlow's decision to double the vocal line in almost every solo number with violins. To my ears it puts everyone in a metrical strait-jacket. This may have historical precedent, but surely a cast of professional singers, unlike actors, hardly needs the help? Again & again I felt that the few songs accompanied only by continuo - Polly's 'O ponder well' for one - gave the performers far more room for expressiveness.
Maybe I'm being too harsh, & certainly anyone interested in the history of the English popular musical theater will want to hear this, since at the very least it's a valuable reference edition. But I'm not sure it's going to come off my shelf as often as the Sargent/Austin version (Classics for Pleasure) or Benjamin Britten's genuinely operatic adaptation (Argo & Pearl); 'inauthentic' they may be, but expertly performed & full of gusto, fun & fierceness as well."