Beggar's Opera offers wonderful music
The first striking thing about the School of Music’s production of Benjamin Britten’s adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera was that it looked put together by beggars — intentionally, of course. The ragged-looking curtains pulled back to reveal a patchwork backdrop and a cast dressed in a mixture of modern and 18th-century clothing in this production, which ran Wednesday through Saturday.
The opera itself focuses on an assortment of motley characters from amongst the seediest members of English society in the 1700s. Polly Peachum is the daughter of Mr. Peachum, a man who works with thieves to sell their goods, and Mrs. Peachum, a prostitute. Polly’s parents are mortified that their daughter, whom they have raised all her life to cheat men out of their money, would of all things marry highwayman Captain Macheath — and for love, not even for money! Seeing that the match would otherwise be unprofitable, they encourage Polly to turn her husband in for money and tell her that if she will not, they will.
This story is not exactly one about star-crossed lovers. Although Macheath pledges his devotion to Polly when in her presence, the moment she is out of earshot, he cavorts with every prostitute in town. We later find that he is also married to jailer Lockit’s daughter Lucy, who is pregnant with his child. And Lucy is none too happy about being forsaken for Polly.
Unfortunately, members of the audience unfamiliar with the story might not have known this if it were not for the synopsis in the program; the weakest point of the production was that it was extremely confusing to follow. As a result of the 18th-century dialogue and the British accents that the performers put on, it was difficult to understand what anyone was saying. This confusion became even worse during the singing parts; operatic singing is already somewhat hard to make out, and with the addition of the two previously listed factors, the performers might as well have been singing in a completely different language, although the opera is in English. Captions, especially during these singing parts, would have been highly appreciated.
The Friday night production starred master’s student in vocal performance Erin Schmura as Polly, senior vocal performance major Zachary Mendez as Macheath, senior vocal performance major Raphael McCorey as Peachum, master’s student in vocal performance Courtney Elvira as Mrs. Peachum, junior vocal performance major Garret Eucker as Lockit, and senior vocal performance major Adrienne Lotto as Lucy. There were a number of hilarious performances: Elvira was comically over the top as Mrs. Peachum, a stereotypical overbearing mother à la Mrs. Bennet if the latter were a prostitute. She played well off McCorey, who was more of the straight man. Another scene which drew fits of laughter from the audience involved Mrs. Trapes, a minor character played by senior vocal performance major Ethan Crystal. To the audience, Mrs. Trapes was obviously a man in drag but this fact seemed to be unnoticed by Lockit and Peachum, who kissed and flirted with her.
Though it may have been difficult to understand, the singing itself was amazing. Just listening to them briefly, it is evident that the songs are difficult pieces to sing, though the performers pulled them off wonderfully. The music is gorgeous: Derived from English folk music, the pieces were clear and lively like a country spring. The flute burst in trills and thrills while the violin sang, with varied percussion throughout.
“All In a Misty Morning,” Captain Macheath’s dance song, and “Fill Every Glass,” a drinking song sung by the thieves, are both lively folksy pieces. “Would You Have a Young Virgin?,” in which Macheath sings about his womanizing, is ironically set to a sweet violin piece. In “Thus When a Good Housewife Sees a Rat,” in which Lucy sings to Macheath about his philandering, we see Lotto having much fun rolling her Rs. Polly’s aria in Act II, Scene 13 is accompanied by the gentle sounds of a harp and chorus. It is a very sweet song, and Schmura was an excellent singer who pulled off Polly’s purity and dedication very convincingly.
When you could understand what was being said, the witty banter and dialogue were the highlight of the show. Gay’s work is a satire of English society at the time. It explores class and gender relations in 18th-century England, which was a much more bawdy time than is often depicted in the popular imagination. There are no ladies curtsying, gentlemen tipping hats at one another, or people sipping tea while conversing with words like “shall” and “indubitably.” Instead, we find a society where parents address their daughters as sluts in casual conversation, drinking and gambling are rampant, and all the men are thieves and all the women are prostitutes.
Some of the funniest scenes are when Polly and her parents discuss her marriage. “Do you think your mother and I should have liv’d comfortably so long together, if ever we had been married?” Peachum exclaims. “What would many a wife give for such an opportunity!” Polly’s mother tells her when she proposes that Polly should kill her own husband. When Polly expresses sadness at the thought of parting with her husband when he is dead, her father proclaims, “Parting with him! Why, this is the whole scheme and intention of all marriage articles!”
Overall, the production offered a unique aesthetic and wonderful music. Hopefully, you made sure to read the Sparknotes beforehand!