Thursday, December 10, 2009

Britten and The Beggars Opera, A New Recording

I've admired the operas of Benjamin Britten on a number of levels for many years. I particularly like how the music translates dramatic moments of the plot in ingenious ways. An example, The Turn of the Screw has a scene where the young lad who is being haunted and endangered by a malevolent ghost is practicing scales upon the piano. Britten uses this opportunity to create a mini-concerto for piano and orchestra, with the scalular passages and orchestral accompaniment going increasingly off the tonality. It underscores the unsettled, latently venomous atmosphere present and the increasingly evident psychological instability of the boy. But it does so in a way that puts the compellingly personal stamp of Britten's musical mind upon it.

Of all the Britten works, however, his adaptation of Gay's The Beggars Opera may be the least characteristic. The original version of the work was a great success in London from the moment of its debut in 1728. It enjoyed a long run, with numerous performances both in England and America throughout the century. Gay wrote the libretto and cobbled the music from popular song and a number of borrowed melodies by composers of the time. The subject matter dealt in a sometimes bawdy manner with what used to be termed the lumpen proletariat, pickpockets, thieves, corrupt lawyers and "loose wenches," as the phrase went then. Britten's revival took the music more or less as it was presented in the original but recomposed, reorchestrated, and rescored the instrumental parts.

We have a new recording of the Britten adaptation, with soloists and Christian Curnyn conducting the City of London Sinfonia (Chandos). The two CDs comprise the complete opera, including the somewhat lengthy spoken dialog.

The cast captures well the roguish tenor of the characters and the common folkway roots of much of the music. The real hero of this opera to me is Britten himself. His orchestrations and rearrangements are spiced by modernistic dissonances and chamber orchestral touches worthy of repeated listening. Maestro Curnyn does a fine job bringing out the various nuances of the score.

If you love Britten this will give you more of it to enjoy. On another level the opera itself has much historical interest. Those not familiar with Britten might best look elsewhere for an introduction, such as his best known work Peter Grimes. Nonetheless, there is plenty to enjoy in this new version and the adaptation itself.

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