A modern take on Gay’s classic

John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera has been around since 1728 and is revived with some regularity but has never quite made into the opera canon. The latest incarnation is a version heavily rewritten by Robert Carsen and Ian Burton with a musical concept by William Christie. It first saw light at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in 2018 before touring extensively.


We are in Brexit Britain. The long running partnership between organised crime, law enforcement and politicians continues intact from Gay’s day. It’s a corrupt, morally bankrupt, drug fuelled and entirely plausible world in which 12 year old Romanians are groomed for prostitution and gangsters meet the toffs of the Bullingdon club at high end Mayfair gambling clubs. Not much of Gay and Pepusch’s dialogue survives but the plot is essentially intact, the well known tunes are all there and the whole thing feels very true to the original. The obscenities, which are legion, may bother some people but hearing Lucy Lockit call Polly Peachum “a fucking wanker” in a spot-on Mancunian accent works for me.


There’s not much operatic experience in the cast which consists mainly of singing actors with track records in Britain’s repertory theatres and in musicals. The younger. characters are sexy, dangerous and credible. The scenes between cockney Polly (Kate Batter) and Manc Lucy (Olivia Brereton) are just so right and Emma Kate Nelson’s portrayal of Jenny Diver as a high end dominatrix is brilliant. In some ways in this production Macheath is just a foil for his girls but Benjamin Purkiss makes an attractively dangerous foil. The older trio of the Peachums and Lockit; Robert Burt, Beverley Klein and Kraig Thornber, bring years of character acting experience to the parts. Klein is especially impressive.


The music is played by nine members of Les Arts Florissants led by William Christie, all on stage costumed as a street gang. There’s some clever interpolation of other baroque material between the numbers and it’s impeccably played. The interplay between the raunchy 21st century drama and the precise 18th century music is delicious. Having a young cast with a musical theatre background, who can really move, allows Rebecca Howell a lot of freedom in the choreography, which is energetic and effective.


Filming on the small stage of the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord poses few challenges for François Roussillon who produces an excellent video capture backed up by excellent picture quality on Blu-ray. The sound, though, is at times a bit problematic. The voices are captured well but sometimes the band almost disappears into the background. It’s a small flaw in an otherwise excellent disk package.


This disk may not be for everyone given the language used but for those asking themselves, as many in opera these days are, “what if we didn’t treat the words and music as sacrosanct?”, this production. might suggest some of the possible answers.


Catalogue number: Opus Arte – OABD72831

This review first appeared in the Summer 2021 print edition of Opera Canada


1 thought on “A modern take on Gay’s classic

  1. Pingback: Subjective picks on DVD and Blu-ray | operaramblings

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