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Summer Opera: Castleton Festival 2

Donald Groves (Filch) and Melissa Parks (Mrs. Peachum) in The Beggar's Opera, Châteauville Foundation (photo by Nicholas Vaughan)
The second production of Lorin Maazel's new Castleton Festival, sponsored by the Châteauville Foundation at the Maazels' estate in Rappahannock County, Virginia, is The Beggar's Opera, heard at its opening on Sunday night. The afterlife of John Gay and Christopher Pepusch's history-changing comic opera includes Benjamin Britten's ingenious 1948 adaptation of the work, in which Britten streamlined the work by selecting among the many airs and giving them new harmonizations and orchestrations. We commend Maazel for mounting an all too rare staging of the Britten version, already reviewed by our own Michael Lodico last year. Britten was a great admirer of historical British music, seen in his adaptations of Purcell (A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra) and Dowland (Lachrymae, among others), and he once called the ballads and other tunes recycled by Gay and Pepusch as "among our finest national songs."

The problem with reconstructing The Beggar's Opera is that the printed sources indicate only the name of the tune to which Gay's new words were sung (see this facsimile of the 1765 edition). Pepusch's overture and short scores of the tunes, just melody and bass line, were written down, but later performances all have to rely on arrangements, like the one by Frederic Austin. Britten not only made the work leaner, by not setting all of the tunes or keeping all of the dialogue, he made the work flow much better, by providing some musical bits under the spoken lines, which helps link together a work that can come off as quite fragmentary. It is not a reconstruction as much as a reimagining of this crucial work in operatic history, an early comic opera that laid the foundation for the English operetta tradition of Gilbert and Sullivan, as well as for the American musical. Within two decades of the work's 1728 premiere, The Beggar's Opera was staged in New York and other American cities: according to Donald Grout and Hermine Weigel Williams (A Short History of Opera, 4th ed., p. 566), a performance of the work in Upper Marlborough, Maryland, was the first American operatic performance that had a full orchestral accompaniment for the singers.

Sarah Moule (Lucy Lockit), Julia Elise Hardin (Polly Peachum), Dominic Armstrong (Macheath) in The Beggar's Opera, Châteauville Foundation (photo by Nicholas Vaughan)
William Kerley's production gallops and romps its way through the first and second acts, on a crudely assembled raked stage in a temporary pavilion erected near a field serving as the festival parking lot. A painted backdrop sets the action in the city of London, with the Cathedral of St. Paul's prominently featured, and the audience and part of the playing area surround the makeshift pit space, just large enough to accommodate the small chamber orchestra called for by Britten. Stock 18th-century costumes (sets and costumes designed by Nicholas Vaughan) mostly kept the action in the original period, with clownish white face make-up on all the actors encouraging our perception of the characters as buffoonish types rather than individuals. With superb comic timing, the singers captured the rakish, literary tone of the text: Gay was, after all, a member of the Scriblerus Club, and the idea for The Beggar's Opera reportedly came from a remark Jonathan Swift made to Alexander Pope.

Tenor Dominic Armstrong was a charming Macheath, with a sweet upper register if not necessarily the profile of a dashing criminal. Michael Rice's Mr. Peachum was garrulous and single-minded in his greed, while the Mrs. Peachum of mezzo-soprano Melissa Parks was a full-bodied presence vocally and physically. Julia Elise Hardin gave Polly a soubrette lightness, while Sarah Moule's Lucy Lockit was noteworthy more for the acting than the singing, which was a little strained, especially in the upper register. Darren Perry and Donald Groves gave fine supporting performances as Lockit and Filch, respectively. A chorus of fourteen singers had an almost too powerful sound for the size of the venue, adding ridiculous extras in the background. The young musicians of the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, whose Kennedy Center concert with Lorin Maazel we sadly had to miss earlier this spring, played with poise and accuracy. The flutter-tongued flute accompanying Polly's turtle dove song and piccolo (Nicole Pressler) and melancholy English horn in the prison scenes (Svetlin Doytchinov) were particularly fine.

Other Reviews:

T. L. Ponick, Pitch-perfect 'Beggar's' (Washington Times, July 7)
After such a promising beginning, Kerley came down like a ton of bricks on the Newgate Prison scenes, putting Macheath and his conspirators in orange jumpsuits and, under harsh fluorescent lighting (credited to Rie Ono), underscoring the horror of imprisonment and hanging. We are not intended to take seriously the characters' defense of their larcenous way of life, their mercenary approach to love and marriage, their vicious sexism -- the libretto must hold the record for the sheer number of times words like slut, hussy, and wench are pronounced. Are we not also to laugh at, and thereby understand the seriousness of (the purpose of ironic parody, after all), the thought of Macheath being hanged? The sermonizing tone adopted by Kerley sucked all of the oxygen out of the production, bringing the forward movement to a halt in the final scenes.

This production will be repeated this Sunday (July 12, 7 pm) and twice the following week (July 16, 7:30 pm; July 18, 2 pm). Assistant conductor Jordi Bernàcer will take the podium for the performances on July 12 and 18.

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