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The Beggar's Opera: Maazel's Own Brand of Mendicants

Swan.jpgLorin 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--Emus.jpga 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.


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. The Beggar's Opera2_Vale Rideout.jpg
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.Llama.jpg


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.


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."


The short synopsis of the of this three act opera is that Polly Peachum (Julia Elise Hardin) has secretly married the infamous highway man Captain Macheath but her mother (Melissa Parks) finds out, tells Polly's father (Michael Rice), and then the parents decide to have Macheath arrested and executed so that the Peachums can reap the benefit of Macheath's estate.

The Beggar's Opera1_Makiko Ishii.jpg
Photo of Mrs. Peachum (Melissa Parks) with Filch (Donald Groves) by Makiko Ishii

Despite Polly's warning, Macheath is arrested with the help of two prostitutes. He is thrown into Newgate prison. In prison, he is visited by the jailor's daughter Lucy Lockit (Sarah Moule) who is furious with Macheath because he promised to marry her. Nonetheless, Lucy steals her father's keys and helps Macheath escape. By chance, Mrs. Trapes (Sarah Simmons), a gaming house madam, spills the beans on Macheath's whereabouts to Mr. Peachum and jailor Lockit (Darren Perry) who have joined forces to find the Captain. Macheath is captured again and sentenced to hang but at the last minute he is pardoned.

While all the singers and players performed admirably, tenor Dominic Armstrong's acting made him a clear standout. The Dresser's favorite scene occurred in the whorehouse--women came out of trapdoors on the catwalk. It was raucous fun, but perhaps, stage director William Kerley could have coached Maia Surace as Jenny Diver to be more seductive and more devious (she is one of the ladies of the night who betrays Macheath). Here the Dresser admits the influence that The Threepenny Opera had on her and how she expected Jenny Diver and Suky Tawdry (Rebecca Luttio) to compete for attention with Polly and Lucy.


For the most part, the Dresser enjoyed Nicholas Vaughan's costuming, which was predominately middle class 18th century. She grooved on the long curly black-locked wig worn by Mr. Peachum. What she didn't care for was the proliferation of orange jumpsuits worn by Macheath and choral members in the last act. The modern-day prison jumpsuits clearly breached the time wall and made the audience confront issues of current day incarceration. This also made the Dresser question why thieves, whores, and jailor were costumed in the respectable togs of 18th century burghers. Then she thought, well, this puts the onus of who is the beggar back on the audience.

As serendipity had it, the Dresser sat down in her seat only to see her poet friend Mary-Sherman Willis waving in her direction. As it turned out, she and her film-producer husband Scott Willis were housing a few of the artists associated with this production and they knew many people in the audience, some of whom had traveled from New York City and others who frequented the Big Apple often, including one woman who had seen the Dresser's opera Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On. So was this an audience of beggars? No, but the Dresser did encounter one man at the refreshment counter who broke a large cookie in two and asked if he could share it as long as the Dresser paid, because as he explained it, he had royally supported the Castleton Festival and his pockets were bereft of cash. This is where the story returns to the Dresser being fed by a total theatrical and operatic experience, something that often goes begging in other theatrical renderings.

In Deborah Bernhardt's epigraph and opening section of her long poem "The Only Universal Tongue" from echolalia, winner of Four Way Books Intro Poetry Prize, the reader enters a universe filled with familiar but, yet, not quite known music much like what the Dresser encountered with Britten's interpretation of Gay's The Beggar's Opera. Like Gay, Bernhardt is attuned to her literary contemporaries (and Shakespeare) and her larger poem, rendered in five parts, treats a subculture of modern day big city life where colorful but unsavory characters reign.

Who gets to be the man? grew increasingly irrelevant,
replaced by who am I really, now that I'm with you?
--from the "Brown Boys" chapter of Taboo by Boyer Rickel

I. Local Overture

Music is an intimate at first brush. Music is,
when you want it, graspable as your own chest. On
the soundbar of your sternum--feel the slipped bass.
Where is your surge protector? Double, double, tinfoil treble.
Spacey antenna. Gracenote bubble. Warmups like mei me my mo moo.
May I have this dance?--a doffing of waltz, among the brazen decibels,
with a borrowed libretto. I've heard you somewhere before.

Excerpt of " The Only Universal Tongue " from echolalia
Copyright (c) 2006 by Deborah Bernhardt.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Four Way Books.
All rights reserved.


Comments (1)

Lots of historical information I didn't know here and grateful to have.

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