Sunday, October 31, 2010

Gay-Pepusch - The Beggar's Opera - Jeremy Barlow, The Broadside Band

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In an important sense, this is a first recording. The Beggar's Opera is of course not new to the catalogues. There have been many recordings, from the early 1920s, when Frederick Ranalow and others from the famous Lyric Theatre revival sang excerpts in the version prepared by Frederic Austin, to the star-studded performance of the Bonynge/Gamley adaptation on Decca, recently reissued on CD (0 430 066-2DH2, 5/91). This new one, however, presents the acting-text and the musical score in as unaltered a mode as possible. Original instruments, a distribution of the voice parts to conform with what appears to have been used inJohn Gay the original, the acting-roles with no jokes added or cut: all is, for the first time on record, as it was in 1728. Except, of course, that it can't be. In 1728 there was a live audience who, I imagine, were very much part of the show. They knew the tunes and their customary words, saw the funny side of their present appropriation; they understood the jokes about Sir Robert Walpole and others; they could respond to the anti-conventionality without the use of a historical essay to explain what the conventions were. It was all different. Jeremy Barlow has nevertheless done a valuable job, if only by making it perfectly clear what The Beggar's Opera actually was; and that, after all, is a rather remarkable thing to have to say at this date, for everyone knows about it yet nobody (relatively speaking) has known the thing itself. There are, for instance, 69 songs, most of them lasting less than two minutes. They include a few duets and songs with chorus, but no concerted numbers. The acts end abruptly, the proportion of speech to music is high, and, by what might be seen as an early alienation-effect, the drama is interrupted just as it approaches its climax, and changed, there and then, from tragedy to comedy. Whether it is still capable of giving enjoyment in this form is another matter. Occasionally one of the satirical comments ("Where is the woman who would scruple to be a wife if she had it in her power to be a widow whenever she pleased?") is well put, though usually the 'wit' has easy targets such as politicians. The tunes are pleasant but so quickly over, undeveloped and often inexpressive that musical satisfaction is limited. Much depends on the performance, and here, I'm afraid, the recording does not help. It is a hard thing to say, but, with the possible exception of Sarah Walker, no one in the cast raises a laugh or has the elusive quality of 'style'. Worse, the stage-cockney becomes extremely irritating. It is something of a relief to find that Macheath sings posh though he talks common, and that several others also adopt this policy, but the discrepancy should not be so obvious. Often the timing and emphasis of the dialogue are poor, and even Bob Hoskins is not exempt from this. Compare the scenes for Beggar and Poet here with Warren Mitchell and Sir Michael Hordern in the Decca recording, which they light up so that it takes life from a glint in the eye, a pause for thought, an actor's relish for what he's doing. There is something fatally, hardworkingly entertaining about this new recording, useful as it should prove for purposes of reference. J.B.S.



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