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In 1728 John Gay pasted together familiar tunes and satirical lyrics in English to (among other things) mock Handelian Italian opera and celebrate humor of the people; The Beggar's Opera has remained strongly popular ever since. The present production by the ECU School of Music Opera Theater is a happy addition to the many incarnations of the work. Giving credit where due in a production of this magnitude is difficult, so I'll start with highest praise for everyone by saying you really need to go see and hear this performance before the run is over.
Other than the words and the tunes with unfigured bass, only Gay's overture survives. Every time Beggar is put on, it is re-worked to some extent; this production is credited as “realized” by Benjamin Britten. It is his opus 43, from 1948, with his own harmonies, somewhat complex and severely dated. They sounded neither eighteenth-century, Victorian, or up-to-date; in short, I felt the Britten was more of a detraction than an addition, albeit excellently played. In spite of the cast's best efforts at clear diction, their 'British' accents and Fletcher's acoustical complexities rendered the dialog largely impossible to follow, but that is a minor thing in a ballad opera. An important exception was MacHeath's delivery of a series of truly bawdy double entendres, which were received with much laughter.
John Kramar is Musical Director for these performances while Andrew Crane conducts. Eric Stellrecht provides musical preparation and tenor Daniel Shirley plays MacHeath. All are ECU faculty. The rest of the company is largely from the ECU student body or recent graduates.
ECU's A. J. Fletcher Recital Hall was an adequate theater; the orchestra was on stage, almost out of sight in a “pit” constructed of screens at the back of the stage; only the horn of the bassoon, the scroll of the bass viol, and the conductor and his stick could be seen, but the orchestral sound was excellent.
The star of the show is Daniel Shirley. His glorious voice – unforced, as clear as a bell, devoid of quaver, and truly bel canto – enriched every scene he was in. Other great singing came from Allison Gross/Mrs. Peachum, Julia Becker/Lucky Lockit, Rachel Webb/Polly Peachum, Steven Vinolas/Mr. Peachum, and Trey Scarborough/Mr. Lockit. Special mention for excellence in acting goes to Graham Leonard/Filch; his character is threaded throughout the opera. He deserves another round of applause for his aplomb, poise, dignity under fire, etc., for his appearance in his socks and boxer briefs when he is surprised while offstage with Mrs. Peachum. The entire cast was splendid in their vignettes in the drunken sluttish tavern scenes.
The costumes were elaborate and colorful; the scene was 1895 London. The staging was effective, with minimal props. Stage movements amounted practically to careful choreography, so complicated and effective were the repeated passing and repassing in the action scenes. The lighting was mostly effective in contributing to the mood of Peachum's den, a tavern, and Newgate prison. Although it was totally plausible that all these low-rent hussies should screech all their spoken lines, it was tiresome and made them hard to understand. Screeching aside, this is a rip-snorting good production; try to see it. See the sidebar for details of the next two performances.