Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Beggar’s Opera @ Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, London

20, 23, 24, 25, 27, 28 January 2009

Royal Opera House

Royal Opera House (Photo: Luke Hayes/Royal Opera House)

For his first full production in the Linbury Studio, director Justin Way attempts something that, in the hands of Richard Jones, might have invigorated John Gay’s 1728 ballad opera. Here, though, it falls as flat as a lead pancake and teeters dangerously on the edge of complete disaster.

Transporting an old work lock, stock and barrel into a modern setting demands a fearless approach and Way’s is hesitant at best. Jones did it, and brilliantly, at the Coliseum recently with I Pagliacci but even then, despite the ingenuity, he managed to place himself squarely between the work and the audience. This is a brave attempt to be as bold but the execution falls well short of the intention.

Just as Gay cobbled together popular tunes and airs nicked from the works of contemporary composers (including Handel and Purcell), this is a cramming together of a bunch of ideas that in more experienced hands could have worked. Way doesn’t follow them through, though, and there’s a tentativeness about his direction that fails to capitalise on the opportunity.

Theatre management must have changed a lot since the early 18th Century. John Rich, the entrepreneur and theatre producer who mounted The Beggar’s Opera at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, made enough profit from its 62 performances to initiate the building of a new theatre in Covent Garden. That may have been a record-breaking run for the time but today would go nowhere towards recouping costs, let alone allowing a real estate development to take place.

That The Beggar’s Opera has a direct connection with the present day opera house (the third building on the spot) sets up a resonance that Way, with his designers Kimm Kovac and Andrew Hays, pounce on, giving us a setting that is all too familiar. Looking back at us are tabs and balconies ripped from the main Covent Garden auditorium (although the audience filling the seats are somewhat less recognisable).

Sadly what is acted out beneath this impressive edifice is more village hall than Theatre Royal. This is a standard of acting that we thought was banished from opera houses forever. Middle-class opera singers burst through a thin veneer of chavviness (which is presented as synonymous with criminality). They are dressed as modern-day whores and ruffians but don’t convince for one moment, although the surface visuals do effectively evoke an atmosphere of seedy strip joints and low-life bars.

Tom Randle as Macheath sings prettily enough but his acting is as lumpen and amateurish as the rest of the cast. It’s unfortunate that with so little personenregie (and indeed basic stagecraft) there is so much spoken dialogue to get through. I have to say it’s not helped by Benjamin Britten’s 1948 orchestrations. They are never less than attractive, unmistakably Britten and thrilling at times, but too prettified and refined for the subject matter, which cries out for the guts, grime and drive of Kurt Weill’s re-working.

One big misjudgement is turning the beggar, who introduces the work, into one of the ROH’s ushers (what does that say about wages at our top opera house?). She is played by densely-accented Iranian actress Sirena Tocco, who hovers around aimlessly for the whole evening and adds very little, while the production crawls at a snail’s pace. The 65 minute first half is difficult; the 90 minute second induces extreme discomfort, both physical and emotional.

One of the few people to come out of the evening almost unscathed is conductor Christian Curnyn. Following his recent ENO debut with Partenope, he is unlucky in inheriting this from the late Richard Hickox for his first Royal Opera appearance. He leads the 12-piece band (the sprightly City of London Sinfonia) effectively enough but it’s hardly an auspicious start for him.

It’s almost impossible for the music to break through the dismal fog of as stodgy a staging as you’re likely to see from a major company. ENO’s dire Kismet, which earned itself an unenviable place in the history books, was only a small step closer to the completely unacceptable.

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