It’s a curious thing how some works get over recorded and others are almost entirely neglected. For example, there’s only one video recording of Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper and that a 1931 film that omits huge chunks of the stage work. It’s inspiration fares little better. There’s only one video recording of The Beggar’s Opera by Johann Pepusch and John Gay. It’s a 1963 BBC TV production of Benjamin Britten’s reworking of the piece for the English Opera Group based on a stage production by Colin Graham. [ETA: There are actually two other versions; a 1953 movie version with Lawrence Olivier and a 1980s version with Roger Daltrey and John Eliot Gardiner].
It’s presented in a very straightforward way with some rather overly operatic acting from some of the principals (Chiefly the older ones. Presumably this worked for the stage in a large house but looks very odd on TV) but fine performances from others. Macheath is played by Kenneth McKellar, who older readers will remember as a sort of Scottish cultural ambassador, but other parts are mostly played by people more associated with opera. In particular, a young Janet Baker is a very fine Polly Peachum and Heather Harper is almost as good as Lucy Lockit. Among the men, Bryan Drake as the gaoler Lockit is the clear stand out. All up, it’s well sung, the acting is tolerable and the staging is OK.
The music is an interesting mix of Pepusch’s original settings of popular ballads and orchestral interludes that are pure Britten. There’s no mistaking Britten’s voice in the orchestration, for chamber orchestra; the same forces as Albert Herring, either. The band here is the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Meredith Davies and, of course, everyone involved is well versed in this idiom.
Direction for TV was by Charles Rogers and it’s typical of made for TV recordings of the period i.e. it feels like everything has been squeezed into the frame. There are also the expected technical limitations. The picture is rather soft focussed black and white 4:3 and the sound is mono. The sound isn’t bad. It comes in two flavours; LPCM and enhanced Dolby. The first seemed more open and natural. There’s a track listing and a useful essay by Philip Reed in the booklet. Subtitle options are English, French, German and Spanish but I can’t imagine an English speaker needing them. There’s a trailer for other works in the Decca Britten series as a bonus.