Britten: The Beggar’s Opera

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: The Beggar’s Opera
PERFORMER: Susan Bickley, Jeremy White, Leah-Marian Jones, Tom Randle, Robert Anthony Gardiner, Donald Maxwell, Sarah Fox, Frances McCafferty; City of London Sinfonia/Christian Curnyn

It is very difficult to make The Beggar’s Opera viable for modern audiences. This fact was discovered the hard way by the Covent Garden production on which this recording is based. The principal problem is the difficulty of conveying the satirical bite and menace the work undoubtedly had when first produced.
The motley assortment of folk songs, ballads and snatches of Purcell and Handel which comprise the music are so much part of the cultural consciousness that it is hard to feel anything other than comfortable with them, regardless of the action to which they are attached. Then there is the dialogue, which has not aged as well as Shakespeare, with supposedly sharp exchanges often being not so much cattish as doggerel.
For the time, Britten’s version was sympathetic to the original sources, while also being laced with a strong dose of his own genius. One advantage of a recording is the possibility of sidestepping much of the text to concentrate on the music.
Cuts have been made here, though it does not feel like enough in Act I. Too often it is impossible to suspend the disbelief between refined sung diction and dialogue delivered following the Dick van Dyke school of cockney pronunciation.
Once the dialogue largely falls away in the second Act it is possible to relax and enjoy some wonderful singing, supported by often delectable playing from the City of London Sinfonia under Christian Curnyn, even if it does not work as drama. Christopher Dingle