By Susan Brodie
PARIS ‒ What could be more timely than an opera (of sorts) about corruption and betrayal? Robert Carsen’s new production of The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay and Johann Christoph Pepusch just completed a sold-out initial run at Paris’ Les Bouffes du Nord. This multi-year project, with over 100 performances planned into 2020, was the brainchild of William Christie, whose estimable baroque ensemble Les Arts Florissants brought improvisational flair, gusto, and polish to this exuberant piece of theater. Judging from the audience and my own responses on April 30, this darkly humorous romp will be a hit as long as it plays.
The shabby-chic, 530-seat Bouffes du Nord, one of Paris’ better-kept secrets, has a somewhat louche history appropriate to the piece. Built in 1876 on the foundations of an old barrack, it stands in a working-class neighborhood in the north of Paris. From the beginning, it attracted ambitious young impresarios, who found it challenging to stay afloat. Local audiences, unaccustomed to attending plays, often turned violent in their responses to the action onstage. Later, regular repertory featured five-hour historical epics, and patrons brought food to reheat on a communal stove to eat during intermission. The house’s fortunes waxed and waned through two world wars, and the decaying building was finally closed in 1952 because of unsafe conditions.
The near-wreck was acquired in 1969 by an Italian developer who wanted to save it from demolition. A few years later, two adventurous producers, Peter Brook and Micheline Rozan, discovered the remains of the old auditorium and were charmed by its faded elegance and excellent acoustics. They undertook minimal renovations only after vibrations from applause for their first production dumped loose moldings from the ceiling, narrowly missing spectators’ heads.
Since 1974, the house has offered an array of progressive theater, music, and opera, a little like a miniature Brooklyn Academy of Music. Comfort is minimal, but tickets are cheap, and audiences flock to discover the latest experimental ventures of established artists. Director Carsen was part of Les Bouffes’ early days, serving as Brook’s assistant in 1975. Carsen’s revision of the Beggar’s Opera book, with dramaturg Ian Burton, was modeled after Brook’s earlier reworkings of operas like Carmen and The Magic Flute.
The Beggar’s Opera certainly was progressive in 1728. The greatest success of poet and playwright Gay, the librettist for Handel’s Acis and Galatea, it was born of an idea by Jonathan Swift satirizing the thriving London fashion for Italian opera. Instead of elaborate productions on mythological or royal subjects, sung in a foreign language with virtuoso vocal displays and complex musical arrangements, this new form, the ballad opera, instead presented stories of decidedly common folk, with music that set new words to popular songs. Gay’s satire of a corrupt society is scathing, and the tone is savage, leavened by the characters’ youthful energy, their cheerful fatalism over their likely short lives, and lively music. The piece was hugely popular, with over 1,400 performances in its first run, and it enjoyed a number of major revivals; the best-known adaptation is the Brecht-Weill The Threepenny Opera (1928), with an intriguing history of its own.
The plot depicts a world of grifters and thugs, updated in this production to the London of bankers and Brexit. James Brandily’s efficient set consists mostly of movable cardboard cartons, suggesting both street life and Mr. Peachum’s “import-export” business, and most of the players, and the band, are costumed (by Petra Reinhardt) in hoodies and sneakers (with miniskirts and spike heels for the ladies). Mr. Peachum, boss of the local underworld, manages a network of pickpockets, pimps, and prostitutes with the help ‒ generously rewarded ‒ of his friend Mr. Lockit, the prison warden. Peachum’s daughter, Polly, wants to marry Peachum’s main operator, Macheath, a gifted thief and inveterate womanizer.
Unfortunately, so does Lockit’s daughter, Lucy, who is already carrying Macheath’s child. To prevent Polly from eloping with Macheath, Peachum bribes one of his working girls to betray Macheath to the police, a solution welcomed by Lockit, eager to protect his own daughter from a disastrous match. Peachum’s credo, “What’s in it for me?,” is the driving force for all the characters, most of whom are young, hungry, and impulsive. Cocaine- and booze-fueled partying alternates with more intimate scenes that reveal the hedonistic, double-crossing mores of this demimonde. With his two mistresses still fighting over him, Macheath uneasily faces the gallows ‒ until the amusing but unsettling last-minute save.
Gay’s boldly anti-operatic concept for the music was to have the actors sing short ballads ‒ the original script contained 69 songs ‒ without any instruments. But only days before the opening, the producer hired Pepusch to write an overture and minimal accompaniments for the songs. Audiences would have known much of the vocal music, mostly English and Scottish folk tunes; many of them are recognizable today by anyone with a passing interest in Child ballads, English country dancing, or Jane Austen movies.
Ten instrumentalists from Les Arts Florissants, anchored by director Christie (harpsichord), Thomas Dunford (archlute), and Douglas Balliett (bass), fleshed out Pepusch’s figured bass lines with energy and style. Robust playing from the ten-piece ensemble (reading music from iPads propped up on cardboard boxes) helped propel the action, beginning with the explosive opening ‒ like a compressed, intensified version of the beginning of West Side Story ‒ and saved the music from preciousness. With its toe-tapping tunes and driving pace, the show felt much more like musical comedy than like opera.
Instead of opera singers, Carsen and Christie hired actors who could put across a song and dance well (athletic choreography by Rebecca Howell). Standouts among the all-British cast included Robert Burt as Peachum, dapper in his three-piece suit, insinuating and charismatic with his underlings. His flexible character tenor and impeccable diction abetted his pivotal role in driving and narrating the action. Beverley Klein, playing “Mrs.” Peachum and (in a different wig) the barmaid Diana Trapes, was appealing as the warm-hearted, salty old broad. Tall, handsome Benjamin Purkiss as Macheath was attractive but a bit lacking in the charisma I’d expect from a magnetic ladies’ man. Kate Batter as Polly sang sweetly, though Olivia Brereton as Lucy projected more determination to win her man. Emma Kate Nelson as Jenny Diver betrayed Macheath with sexy insouciance.
The final performance of The Beggar’s Opera at Les Bouffes du Nord was May 3, but the production will begin an extended tour with the Spoleto (Italy) Festival in July and the Edinburgh Festival in August. Check here for upcoming dates and ticket information.
The April 27 performance was filmed and, for internet viewers able to connect to a server in France, is available to stream through Oct. 28 here.