Tuesday, 9 October 2018

The Beggar's Opera

Opéra des Nations
© 2018 Jane Elizabeth Lambert: All rights reserved

Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord The Beggar's Opera Opéra des Nations, Geneva 7 Oct 2018, 15:00

Before I saw the show I thought I would have to justify the appearance of an opera review in a dance blog.  However, the new version of The Beggar's Opera by Ian Burton and Robert Carson began with an explosion of dance and there was plenty more throughout the show.  Rebecca Howell's choreography was spectacular.  At least one bit where a boy seemed to levitate in low plank position was as impressive to watch as it must have been exhausting to perform.

Of course, The Beggar's Opera is not really opera.  There are no recitatives and Pepusch incorporated the popular songs of his day such as Over the Hills and Far Away and Lillibulero with John Gay's lyrics into the score.  The formalities of Italian opera were just as much targets of Gay's satire as the celebrities that he pilloried.

The Beggar's Opera was a hit when it was first performed in 1728. So, too, have been most of its revivals.  The reason for its popularity is that a story about mobsters, venal politicians, bent coppers and arrogant young men treating women abominably resonates in every age.  Analogies would have been drawn with events of our day even if it had been performed in period costumes without any rewriting of the text.  Carson's staging in modern dress with mobile phones and laptops and Burton's witty libretto rendered it as fresh and topical today as Gay's must have been on its opening night.

The show opened with a cacophony of police sirens and frantic movements against a backdrop of packing cases.   Those cases, incidentally, ingeniously designed by James Brandily,  served as Peacham's warehouse, a thieves' den, a brothel, Robin's parlour, a bar and Lockit's prison.   Doors opened in the structure to reveal Polly's bedroom and the gallows.  Crates opened to reveal musical instruments and the band assembled stage right where they remained for the entire show.

I shall not retell the whole story because it is well known or easily looked up but I will give you little snippets of the dialogue. 

Welcoming the audience to his warehouse, Peachum announced he was in the import-export trade. He imported stolen goods and re-sold them as "luxury pre-loved items at knock-down prices."

Having declared his love to Polly Peacham, Macheath confesses:
"I love SEX but I could never be content with just one woman any more than a man who loves money could ever be content with one plastic five pound note."
The mainly French speaking, Swiss audience with their mighty franc certainly got that one. They hooted in derision at our weedy currency.   Another joke they got was Robin's announcement of  a reprieve for Macheath:
STOP!!! There's just been a television News Flash! The Government Majority has collapsed! The Prime Minister has resigned! She's gone - together with her little tiger skin shoes!  The Unionists have gone back to Northern Ireland and the Tories are out for good."
The applause was deafening.  Whoops and cheers around the house.  Remember this was a French speaking audience in a country outside the EU.  Not a bunch of remoaners in Brexit Britain.   There were a few lines such as "strong and stable government" and "we're all in it together" where I seemed to be the only one laughing but the audience appreciated most of the quips.

Every member of the cast was magnificent.  It is probably unfair to single any of them out  for special praise but I particularly liked Beverley Klein as Mrs. Peacham and Kate Batter as her daughter.  Batter explains how the roués of the world get away with so much.  They know that the objects of their love a thoroughgoing scoundrels but they can't tear themselves away from them.

I should say something about the theatre,   It is one of the prettiest little auditoriums I have ever visited.  It is located at a tram and road junction known as "Nations" no doubt deriving its name from the pre-war Palais des Nations.  It is surrounded by the headquarters of UN institutions such as the ITU, the WIPO and the UNHCR.  It is one of the pleasantest spots in Geneva. 

The show ran without an interval but the bars were open for refreshments before and after the show.   We have beer tents in England.   They had a champagne tent outside.  Programmes cost CHF16 (which is more than one would pay even at Covent Garden) but they contained the entire libretto in English and French.  There were also interesting articles about the work some of which were in English.  Like a lot of things in Switzerland, you pay a lot of money but you usually get your moneysworth.

The Beggar's Opera is touring Europe.  If it comes near you then go see it.   Also, it you ever find yourself in Geneva while there is a show at the Opéra des Nations you really must try to see it.

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