The Beggar's Opera: Maazel's Own Brand of Mendicants
Lorin Maazel's gloriously green estate in the rolling hills of Rappahannock County, Virginia, was alive with operatic zest for the July 16, 2009, performance of Benjamin Britten's The Beggar's Opera. Although the Dresser arrived hungry, only to learn Châteauville's chef had seriously sliced her finger which closed down the alfresco café, the feast of taking in the maestro's menagerie--a flock of gawking emus in an enclosed landscape of dense ferns and pond complete with a prima donna swan and the exotically colored camels located in a paddock just beyond the art gallery hung with views of Virginia's rural inhabitants and habitats more than distracted the Dresser's appetite. Besides, her companion, composer Janet Peachey, had taken the precaution of packing carrot sticks and bing cherries, which she shared as well as her knowledge about how to find Lorin and Dietlinde Maazel's 550-acre home, a property that, in rush hour, is over a two-hour drive from the upper northwest section of Washington, DC.
RAKED, TRAPPED, JUDGED
Much to Ms. Peachey's surprise, The Beggar's Opera was being performed in a huge tent and not the state-of-the-art Theatre House. This, however, is not to say that the theater experience was diminished by this arrangement. Au contraire, the tent was fully air-conditioned, the raised stage was raked tipping it toward the orchestra pit and audience, also the stage extended in a catwalk around the pit and there were numerous trapdoors in the stage and catwalk to allow surprise entrances and exits by the cast. While most of the audience seating was arranged in counter-raked tiers in front of the stage, there was also box seating for some audience members built atop the side walls of the stage and these audience members seemed to take on a role as not just observers but judges of the play's proceedings.
Atop the back wall of the stage, cast members--usually the chorus--occasionally made appearances. One particularly memorable appearance included some of the female cast, partially hidden by the protective wall, presenting themselves as just shoes and legs in an earthy sex scene. Yes, Dear Readers, this was total use of the space with cast making entrances from unexpected doors at the top of the audience risers and along the same paths that audience had followed from the lobby to get to their seats.
Photo of Macheath (Dominic Armstrong) with Lucy Lockit (Sarah Moule) and Polly Peachum (Julia Elise Hardin) by Vale Rideout
And the cast, particularly Dominic Armstrong in the leading role as the womanizing highwayman Macheath, worked the audience, taking up seats on the risers and in the boxes, making eye contact, and Macheath actually drew to the catwalk a young woman sitting in the front row. Even the intermissions had theatrical contact as t-shirts were sold out of the saddlebags of two large llamas that didn't mind being surrounded by curious audience members.
MANY LIVES OF MACHEATH (LOOK OUT MACKIE IS BACK!)
The Dresser suspects that most theatergoers have had more experience with Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera (premiered in 1928) for which Bertolt Brecht wrote the libretto (in German) based on a translation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (premiered in 1765). Certainly for the Dresser, Benjamin Britten's 1948 adaptation of John Gay's groundbreaking piece (first ballad opera, an opera without recitative, an opera focused on thieves, whores, and the poor versus gods or emperors) had to compete with her intimacy with the Weill-Brecht opera. Britten's music is based on a reinterpretation of the popular British tunes of the 18th century that Gay selected but were arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch. While the Dresser (a.k.a. The Steiny Road Poet) was recently deeply excited by the Washington National Opera production of Britten's Peter Grimes, she wasn't entirely tuned into what was Britten and what was the old folk music. Mostly she decided that what was the melody line was the old music and what was texture, rhythm, and inflection was Britten. That said, the variety of musical styles included jigs, jazz, ornamented arias, bluesy ballads. Clearly a musical feast enhanced by Britten's masterful handling.
THE INTIMACY OF THE MAESTRO
Particularly appealing was the intimacy achieved between orchestra, Maazel as conductor, the players, and the audience. Two examples that stick in memory are Macheath addressing a quote from Shakespeare ("If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On") directly to the harpist and Macheath proclaiming "I must have women" to which Maazel turns to the highwaymen and says "I know."