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The Beggar's Opera

At Sanders Theatre through August 11

By Michael J. Halberstam

(A new version of Faust opened at the Theatre on the Green in Wellesley Tuesday evening and will run until Saturday, August 4. It will be reviewed in next week's issue of the Summer News.)

On Thursday, May 19, 1763 James Boswell noted in his "London Journal" that strolling through the Strand he had met several ladies of the town and, "in a rich flow of animal spirits," had betook them to a private room in an ale-house. "I toyed with them and drank about and sung 'Youth's the Season' from The Beggar's Opera and thought myself Captain Macheath; and then I solaced my existence with them, one after the other, according to their seniority." Two hundred years later the Drama Festival's production of the same play, while not specifically aphrodisiac, still exalts and delights.

It is easy to see why Boswell and the rest of London's intelligentsia were so entranced by this play about thieves and harlots. Up to the time John Gay wrote it in 1728, London opera had been the Italianate tableaux of Handel, complicated tales of gods and goddesses, ancient heros, and noble peasants. Gay took contemporary London as his scene, its squalid poor for his supporting players, and a well-born rake turned highwayman as his hero. Whereas Handel had been intrigued by the idea that savages could be as noble as lords and ladies, Gay argued that nobles could be as savage as the lowliest pimp; his characters, though they try desperate hard, are despondent over their failure to exceed "the quality folk" in treachery and knavery.

This was the story that Weill and Brecht turned into the despairing "Threepenny Opera," which showed the poor as helpless victims of the rich. The Drama Festival's production, while it retains the bawdy cynicism of the original, blunts the social satire; thus where Gay wrote "A woman knows how to be mercenary though she has never been to Court or the Palace," Richard Baldridge's adptation has it, "A woman knows how to be mercenary--it is in her nature." The all-over effect has been to turn the opera into a musical comedy, an eighteenth century "Guys and Dolls."

As a musical comedy "The Beggar's Opera" is incomparable. Gay, unhindered by copyright laws, set his verses to popular songs--folk songs today--and the airs of Purcell and Handel himself. Daniel Pinkham of the Festival has followed in this tradition by rummaging through Handel and plucking out a few gems that Gay missed, including the rousing anthem "See the Conquering Hero Comes." His orchestrations, while essentially true to the baroque originals, reinforce these delicate songs without intruding on their simplicity; the flute and string accompaniment of "Youth's the Season" was especially graceful.

Thus all that the cast must do is sing properly some of the loveliest airs ever written, and, with a few minor exceptions, this they all do. There is little to be said about Shirley Jones as Polly Peachum; I can not conceive of the role's ever having been played any better. Jack Cassidy, a bold and dashing Macheath, lacks the noble voice of Miss Jones, but sings most pleasingly. George Irving triumphs as scheming Mr. Peachum; both in his comedy bits and arias he is Peachum as Gay must have envisioned him. Zamah Cunningham as his wife, however, speaks her lines as if she were all too conscious of their comic intent. Jeanne Beauvais displayed a lovely voice as Lucy Lockit, and Sorrel Booke was properly ingratiating as the Beggar Poet.

A crowd of most-authentic cut-throats and trollops completed the assemblage, and at the conclusion one was very sensible of the fact that it is a dull and commonplace world we live in, despite our atoms, and that, failing to have known John Gay's London, we must count ourselves lucky to have his opera.

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