Beggar's Opera reviews

FRANK RUHRMUND in The Cornishman

THE BEGGAR’S OPERA at The Minack Theatre, 31 August 2006

As the highwayman and anti-hero “Captain” Macheath might say in Surrey Opera’s presentation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, may my pistols misfire if, thanks to its design by Prav Menon-Johansson and lighting by Simon Hutchings, this is not one of the prettiest productions of the season. Realised from the original airs by Benjamin Britten and directed with considerable style by Mark Hathaway, a man with nerves of steel who has the courage and the good humour to recruit some of his “Ladies of the Town” from the hamlet of Buryas Bridge - more than one member of his audience will be looking out for them on their way home from the Minack - from its prologue, an impressive introduction of its white-wigged and capped cast to its gripping finale - will the audience grant the accused a reprieve or will he hang? - and with its singers and orchestra conducted by Jonathan Butcher in fine form, it is a treat for eyes and ears.

The principals are splendid, Christopher Diffey as the polygamous Macheath for whom the walk from the tavern at Newgate to the tree at Tyburn is all too short; Louise Deans and Helen Massey as his “wives” Polly and Lucy; Patricia Robertson as both Mrs Peachum and Mrs Trapes; Adam Gilbert as the pickpocket Filch; Leandros Taliotis as the corrupt but particularly powerful gaoler Lockit; Tim Baldwin as the grasping master mafioso Peachum who would sell his granny for the right price; and Paul Bray as the beggarly, suave, master of ceremonies. They, in turn, are strongly supported by the Ladies of the Town, the Gentlemen of the Road, and the members of the Chorus.

First staged in 1728, possibly this country’s first musical and one since described as “an opera for all seasons”, with its satirical, not to say scathing, lyrics, its claims that “men are born to lie and women to believe them”, that money is everything, and that the poor get hung while the rich get richer, The Beggar’s Opera not only still has bite but, in many respects, is even more relevant in the 21st century than it was in the 18th.

From the highwaymen’s, foot-stomping invitation to march “Let us take to the Road” to the familiar “Lillibullero”, from the so-called frailty of women to the venality of men, from its dancing to its gathering around the gallows. this production of what Paul Bray in a programme essay describes as a “magpie’s nest of an opera”, is filled to its brim with rich, perfect Bank Holiday pickings.

THE BEGGAR’S OPERA, Surrey Opera at The Capitol, Horsham, Saturday 30 September 2006

The following is an abridged review taken from The Operatalent website.

This is a wonderful show, but I feel it is a hard challenge for an Opera Company, as the spoken element is so important and the singers need to be superb actors. The Seventeenth Century dialogues can be difficult for modern ears and have to be delivered clearly. Unfortunately, in this production much of their humour was lost and many were rushed lacking pauses, vital for comedy. They did improve in the second half, though and the women tended to be better than the men. In terms of movement, scenery and costumes, everything was of a high standard and I loved the chorus both vocally and visually in the Highwaymen’s chorus and the Tavern scene.

Christopher Diffey certainly looked the part as Macheath, sang with a clear, even tone, and had no technical problems. He acted the role well, but could have been more menacing to bring out the dark side of the character. Tim Baldwin and Leandros Taliotis played the two anxious fathers. They both had the confidence to portray the personality of the characters, but could have acted the dialogues better. Baldwin has a solid, warm bass voice and sang the part very well. Taliotis had less to sing but was no less accomplished. Louise Deans has a very beautiful voice: light and soft. She was convincing as Polly and totally believable.

There were two members of the cast who stood out. Patricia Robertson is the type of singing actress the part needs. There was a great variety to her facial expressions and the delivery of her lines. Her expressive qualities carried over into her singing and, although I found her voice a little thin, this didn’t matter as she sang with complete conviction. She was also a comic delight in the small role of Mrs Trapes. She would have stolen the show had it not been for Helen Massey as Lucy Lockit. The spoken dialogue was of a standard I would expect from an actress in a non-musical play in the main London theatres. She has a strong voice and sang the arias and duets with just the right bite for jealous, wronged Lucy. She also found the pathos in her touching Act Three aria. Paul Bray as the beggar and the members of the chorus in the smaller roles were all very well cast and did admirably in their parts; it is nice to see this kind of enthusiasm! Jonathan Butcher held everything together wonderfully and the music had spirit and feeling.

Nicholas Bartlett

Derrick Graham in The Surrey Mirror, 5 October 2006

The Beggar’s Opera, Surrey Opera, The Capitol, Horsham

When John Gay wrote and staged The Beggar’s Opera in 1728, there was little copyright protection for composers and he ‘borrowed’ shamelessly from other works and popular music of the period. Thus, many of the arias and choruses were familiar to his audiences. His characters too were familiar to the people of that time - the opera is about highwaymen, prostitutes and thieves, corrupt prison officials and receivers of stolen goods.

The Surrey Opera production was very impressive and extremely realistic, both in setting and costume. The simple set was adequate, the most complicated part being the execution shed in the finale, which was trucked in to centre stage front and looked terrifyingly real. As the noose went round Macheath’s neck and the stool was kicked away, one could only hope that all possible precautions had been taken!

Few opera companies use amplifiers, and to be in Surrey Opera, you have to have the sort of voice that can be heard all over the theatre. But, unfortunately, so could the orchestra, and despite the conductor being the eminent Jonathan Butcher, whose control is usually so rigorous, much of the singing in the first scene was drowned out by music. This was certainly not due to lack of volume by the principal singers, most of whom were professionals (and Tim Baldwin as Peachum who could be, except that he finds computers more exciting!).

By Scene 2, Jonathan had beaten the orchestra into submission (this was the first night at The Capitol in Horsham) and the wonderful voices could be heard clearly. Peachum is a powerful fence, controlling much of the thievery in London and perfectly portrayed by Tim backed up by Patricia Robertson as his wife. He is alarmed to find his daughter Polly (Louise Deans) is having an affair with the notorious highwayman Macheath and gets him arrested and put in Newgate Jail. While chained up, he is confronted by the jailer’s daughter Lucy (Helen Massey) who he got pregnant four months earlier. Realising he’s not ever going to marry her if he’s hung, she steals her father’s keys and sets Macheath free. Lockit, the jailer, looked absolutely villainous - great make-up for Leandros Taliotis and a fine characterization.

Both of Macheath’s ladies had superb voices and Christopher Diffey sang and acted brilliantly as the highwayman. Paul Bray played the beggar, giving continuity and narration to the plot, though little chance to use his bass voice for singing.

A great chorus of prostitutes and highwaymen provided support for this fine production directed by Mark Hathaway.

Roderic Dunnett in Opera, November 2006

The Beggar’s Opera at Haslemere Hall, September 22

Surrey Opera had the courage to stage Peter Grimes last season, and it was doubly courageous of them to venture back to Britten so soon. The company’s capable artistic director, Jonathan Butcher, is a seasoned and finessed Britten conductor: the orchestral playing for this delightfully spirited staging was right up to the mark. From the slivers of the wheedling bassoon, subtle timpani and elegant woodwind duets early on to the beefy tutti of the more rollicking choruses, the sparkle and invention never wavered.

Some voices lacked operatic experience, but none lacked character. Tim Baldwin’s conniving Peachum brought increasingly firm assurance, and Patricia Robertson brought arch music-hall cameos to enliven Mrs Peachum and (later) Mrs Trapes. The sour verbal tussles between rivals Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit – stopping just short of fisticuffs – were full of vigour: Helen Massey’s occasionally raucous Lucy confidently mastered an orchestra that slightly outweighed Louise Deans’s sympathetic Polly. Adam Gilbert had a good stab at Filch. The Australian Christopher Diffey provided a strong presence plus a pleasing tone for Macheath, but the outstanding voice was Leandros Taliotis’s surly and sinister Lockit: a baritone of sturdy character, who sings with marked feeling.

Simon Hutchings worked wonders with the lighting, engaging numerous subtle shades, especially in the prison scenes and mock-hanging. Prav Menon-Johansson’s set, including striking gallows and solid furniture, was first-rate. What came across magnificently in Mark Hathaway’s staging was his controlled, vital management of his chorus. Everything, from the line of ex-lovers confronting Macheath to the deftly shifter blockings, seemed striking and relevant. This was a show of such fine-honed detail you had to keep your eyes open; blink and you missed something.

Roderic Dunnett in Opera Now Magazine, January/February 2007

The Beggar’s Opera at Haslemere Hall

At Haslemere Hall, I enjoyed immensely Surrey Opera’s staging of The Beggar’s Opera (given in Benjamin Britten’s setting of Gay’s score), not just because of the aplomb with which the cast – above all, a splendid chorus – set about it, but because of the myriad of fine touches from director Mark Hathaway.

He was helped from the start by his designer’s period feel. Prav Menon-Johansson and her costumiers had produced glorious dresses and aprons that looked as if they had slipped out of a Rowlandson print – peaches and apricots and nursery-rhyme blues in abundance. Just as impressive were the outfits for Filch (Adam Gilbert) and MacHeath, with some resplendent attire for Tim Baldwin’s eminent, magisterial Peachum. What’s more, everybody disported themselves so naturally you’d have thought they’d been born in them. Hathaway’s blockings of this intelligent cast were so nattily conceived and admirably executed that this show was a constant feast for the eye. Naughtiness was in the air.

Drawbacks? Some of the voices were smallish ones, not operatically trained, and one wondered if they were up to Britten’s scoring, which is quite meaty even in the arias. At times these young singers were overwhelmed. Yet Louise Deans’ Polly made a charming sound, shy and delicate, and paired well both with her father’s robust but restrained baritone and Helen Massey’s fiery Lucy Lockit, the most forceful of the girls’ voices.

The acting (or delicious over-acting) laurels went to Patricia Robertson, doubling in Brummy and Fife accents as Mrs Peachum and Mrs Trapes. But Adam Gilbert made something good, if rather aristocratic, of Filch, and tenor Christopher Diffey’s MacHeath was so suave and agreeable a performer, with a nice if gentlish lyric tenor beautifully abreast of the note, that his attractive character held the show together admirably. We could see more of this stylish Australian, now studying at the Royal Academy.

Baritone Leandros Taliotis has now completed college, and the maturity showed in his voice: there is a slight diffidence, but he has a steadyish, warm-toned delivery. Another useful singer for casting directors to take note of.

From Ian McLauchlan’s eerily tongued flute for Polly to Liz Horseman’s wonderful oboe obbligati, and galvanised by Jonathan Butcher’s often masterly music direction, this was a shrewd musical band that caught impressively the rhythmic zest and ever-changing intricate detail of Britten’s almost hyperinventive score. Simon Hutchings lit it all heroically.