SOURCE: This is a September 22, 1948 BBC broadcast of a slightly modified version of the 1948 Tyrone Guthrie/Benjamin Britten stage production of "The Beggar's Opera." It was privately recorded off the air onto twenty-one acetate disks, which were provided to Pearl by the Earl of Harewood.
SOUND: The sound as remastered onto this CD version reflects the quality of the original acetate disks and ranges from minimally adequate to just plain awful, the latter state applying mainly but not exclusively to the overture.
CAST: The Beggar - Gladys Parr; Mr. Peachum, a thief-taker, respected fence for stolen goods and all-around scoundrel - George James; Mrs. Peachum, a suitable helpmate for her husband - Flora Nielsen; Polly Peachum, their pretty and (sort of) innocent daughter who is (sort of) married to Macheath - Nancy Evans; Lucy Lockit, the jailer's daughter jailer who is engaged to be married (sort of) to Macheath - Rose Hill; Captain Macheath, a highwayman ... how happy he could be with either were t'other dear charmer away - Peter Pears; Lockit, the head jailer at Newgate Prison - Otakar Kraus; Filch, Peachum's right-hand man and an up and coming scoundrel - Norman Platt; Mrs. Diana Trapes, an overly talkative woman who knows too much about Macheath - Gladys Parr; "Ladies of the town": Mrs. Coaxer - Catherine Lawson; Dolly Trull - Gladys Parr; Mrs. Vixen - Lesley Duff; Betty Doxy - Mildred Watson; Jenny Diver - Jennifer Vyvyan; Mrs. Slammekin - Elizabeth Parry; Suky Tawdry - Lily Kettlewell; Molly Brazen; Macheath's Gang: Mat of the Mint - Norman Lumsden; Ben Budge - Dennis Dowling; Harry Paddington - Roy Ashton; Jemmy Twitcher -Norman Platt; Nimming Ned / a jailer - Max Worthley; Wat Dreary / a drawer - John Highcock.
CONDUCTOR: Benjamin Britten, with the English Opera Group Orchestra.
MUSIC TEXT: For this production, conceived by the famous director Tyrone Guthrie, Benjamin Britten mostly respected the melody lines of the 18th Century popular tunes which had been attached to John Gay's lyrics of 1726-27. On the other hand, Britten was far less respectful of the accompaniments, giving them in many cases a distinctly 20th Century flavor and generally ramping up the intensity of the piece from feather-light "ballad opera" to outright "operatic." In a number of instances he combined the original, simple, stand-alone airs into concerted ensembles to achieve effects unknown in their century of origin. This recording, running just over 79 minutes, has captured almost all the music provided by Britten.
DIALOGUE TEXT: This is not a recorded stage performance. Dialogue changes and additions were made in order for the broadcast audience to visualize the actions and the settings of the play. The practical difficulties in recording a live performance off the air and onto acetate disks did not allow for the capture of all the spoken dialogue. However, the producers of this CD have cobbled together enough dialogue to offer a general sense of the plot of "The Beggar's Opera."
COMMENTARY: John Gay (1685-1732) was a literary man of no great success who was a friend of major literary figures such as Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and of actor-producer Colley Cibber (who gave "King Lear" a happy ending), a man as important in London's theatrical circles as he was lousy as a poet. In the 1720s, London's musical stage was still dominated by Handel's Italian operas, elaborately unintelligible productions presenting mythological figures and heroic noblemen. Out of reaction to this, and spurred on by a suggestion from Swift, John Gay wrote a play in the common tongue partly based on actual criminals and scandals and firmly focused on the lurid and deplorable doings of London's lowlife. For his music, Gay chose the popular tunes of his day and fitted his lyrics to them. To complete his "ballad opera," he called on Dr. Johan Christoph Pepusch (1667-1752) for simple orchestral accompaniments.
On January 29, 1727, the musical debut of this tale of dangerous and unwashed thieves, villains, scoundrels and bawds proved to be enormously popular with the well-heeled members of London society. A newspaper of the day remarked that "The Beggar's Opera" had made its producer, Mr. Rich, gay and Mr. Gay rich. The show set new records for length of run and established the young women who had portrayed Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit as great stars, not to mention objects of intense pursuit by exceedingly wealthy noblemen.
John Gay cleared an enormous profit from "The Beggar's Opera." He never again had such a success. A sequel, "Polly," which carried on the adventures of Polly and Macheath, ran into censorship difficulties and was not allowed to be produced on stage during his lifetime, although it sold well in printed form.
Many years ago, I appeared as one of Macheath's gang of highwaymen, I forget which, in a university production of Britten's version of "The Beggar's Opera." My personal opinion then was the very same one I formed on hearing this CD, decades later: the pop tunes of 1727 were ill-treated by being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 20th Century. Then and now, I prefer the more light-fingered touch of Dr. Pepusch to that of Britten. However, I am forced to admit that Britten's version actually works very well in front of a live audience and I can clearly remember applause and cheers, night after night.
The production captured on this CD displays the talents of some of the leading figures in British opera in 1948, most notably, of course, that of Peter Pears. With Benjamin Britten conducting his own work, it positively drips authenticity. I would normally give four stars on the basis of performance, but the state of the truncated dialogue and the sound quality are such that I can justify only three.