The Beggar’s Opera by Benjamin Britten, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, Jan 2009

The original Beggar’s Opera was written by John Gay as a play incorporating lyrics sung to well-known tunes of the time. He did not write any music for it, but a week before its premiere at a theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in January 1728, Johann Christoph Pepusch was brought in to write an overture and accompaniment for the singers. The combination was so successful that it provided the theatre manager with the capital to build a theatre on a new site. Called the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, this was the forerunner of the present Royal Opera House.

Since the original there have been other versions, the most successful of which is surely Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, which had catchy tunes, as did the original version of 1728. But in Britten’s version, where the original melodies are re-orchestrated, there seem to be scarcely any tunes, and I exited humming Mac the Knife from Weill’s version. The failure of Britten’s composition might have been alleviated by the production team, led by Justin Way, but the deliberately ham acting and garish costumes were over the top, and the production did not fit the style of Britten’s music.

In such circumstances it is hard to appreciate the singers, but Donald Maxwell was good as Lockit, and Sarah Fox sang beautifully as his daughter Lucy. Peachum was well performed by Jeremy White, as was his daughter Polly by Leah-Marian Jones, and Tom Randle was Macheath. Christian Curnyn conducted, taking over from the late Richard Hickox.

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