Saturday evening, Lorin Maazel led an “in-house” production of Britten’s The Beggar’s Opera, adapted from the original airs of John Gay’s ballad opera from 1728, as a culmination of the 2008 Castleton Residency for Young Artists. Sponsored by the Châteauville Foundation and staged in the Maazels’ Castleton Farms Theater House at the foot of the Shenandoah mountains, the Castleton Residency has built upon the gripping success of their 2007 production of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia and Turn of the Screw in 2006. The 2008 Residency has provided an opportunity for up to 50 young artists “to live and work together intensively.” The outcome of this intensity is apparent in the fully staged production’s quality and level of detail.
Lorin Maazel, conductor
Rarely performed in the United States, Britten’s 1948 adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera does not idealize John Gay’s adaptations of popular songs in a vividly colorful, Poulenc-like way. Britten’s earthy neo-classical approach sets the songs with rather thick orchestrations that remove much of the rhythmic character of the period, thus creating his own flavor. Britten’s thematic, sometimes melodic use of the timpani is clever.
Indeed, whenever the audience was likely saturated with the expert acting by the singers, a wonderful series of songs would unfold. The quick wit of the thieves Mr. and Mrs. Peachum (Michael Capra Rice and Melissa Parks) and their loyal gang of corrupt parties – the police, jailer, prostitutes, and street criminals – could only be accommodated in fleeting, brawny, accented dialogue. Information about the secret marriage of the Peachums’ daughter, Polly, to the charming philanderer Captain MacHeath (Dominic Armstrong) was met with Polly being addressed as “hussy,” “wench,” or “slut” by her parents throughout the entire work. “I love the sex,” said MacHeath, speaking of women. The expressive tenor then sang a sappy song at the side of a female audience member of “roses and lilies her cheeks disclose,” which kept on going to the point that Maazel began to roll his eyes. MacHeath then remarked, “I must have women.” Maazel quipped from the podium, “I know the feeling.”
The most expressive singing came from the wives of Captain MacHeath – Polly Peachum (Julia Elise Hardin) and Lucy Lockit (Sarah Moule). Both sopranos had voices that complemented the other, as the impassioned and bitterly jealous women sang for MacHeath’s favor. With voices always in motion, their fast, narrow vibratos allowed for a piercing clarity fitting for this music with equally clear text. Peachum and Lockit (Darren Perry), with their booming bass and baritone voices, demand a hanging.
Stage Director William Kerley utilized the entire theater by having entrances from ladders leading from the back balconies, passageways from below the stage, and multiple side entrances. Additionally, a platform was built around the pit so that singers could pass behind the podium. The set (basic furniture and a mural of St. Paul’s Cathedral) and period costumes (Nicholas Vaughan) were fitting. The Keio University 150 Student Orchestra of young, non-music major Japanese musicians made a fine effort.
Polly and Jenny (Laura Quest) were at times behind Maazel’s beat, leading him to frantically gesture for their attention. The dynamic mezzo Melissa Parks astounded with the bitterly expressive range of her voice, which might one day be appropriate to the role of Herodias in Salome. As Charles has mentioned, we hope that the Châteauville Foundation's Castleton Residency for Young Artists will one day be expanded to include performances in Washington, D.C.
The next concert hosted by the Maazels at Castleton Farms will feature the Attacca Quartet (April 6, 4 pm). All performances are by invitation only, so put yourself on the Châteauville Foundation's mailing list.