On 29 January 1728, at John Rich’s theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, playwright John Gay and composer Johann Christoph Pepusch presented to the London public a new ballad opera that would shake the foundations of musical entertainment. Hitherto dominated by Italian opera, the London stage was principally the stomping ground of composers like Handel, Porpora, and Bononcini, as well as the imported French, German and Italian opera stars of the day, all of whom achieved dizzying levels of success. But tides turn, tastes alter, suspicion broods and hostility steadily boiled over into a bubbling pot of mistrust, and by 1728 the British public were no longer amused by foreign entertainments that they could not understand, and which also came at exorbitant prices. Gay and Pepusch’s new satirical theatre pieced poked fun at all the established traits of traditional Italian opera – the ludicrous plots, the weird and unnatural gifts of the castrati – but furthermore it capitalised on the opportunity to lampoon the government and prominent public figures such as prime minister Sir Robert Walpole.

A Scene from The Beggar's Opera, William Hogarth
A Scene from The Beggar's Opera, William Hogarth

Thus, The Beggar’s Opera has maintained a special place in English theatre history as the work that inspired a new national theatre in our own language. Naturally this is exactly the sort of thing that would appeal to England’s most prominent opera composer to date: Benjamin Britten, the man who singlehandedly revived English opera in the 20th century and, echoing 18th-century sentiments, reminded the opera-going public that “the English tongue is as fit for music as any foreign language of them all” – a quote from the 1745 “mock opera” Pyramus and Thisbe by John Frederick Lampe.

In 1948, following the success of Peter Grimes (1945) and The Rape of Lucretia (1947), Britten’s revision, revival and realisation of The Beggar’s Opera achieved a unique place in his operatic canon; it is like no other opera he composed – the story and tunes were already written; all he had to do was to write new accompaniments for them, just as Pepusch had done 220 years earlier. The tunes, in fact, are not by Pepusch, but popular numbers by Purcell, Handel and their contemporaries as well as folk tunes – and this is where my reservations concerning a Britten centenary revival began. Having spent the last ten years with the old Decca recording I have always considered the piece a little “worthy” and over-composed, as if Britten was trying too hard. But I have been shown the error of my ways, and the performance given at the Epstein Theatre by members of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and singers from Royal Northern College of Music completely blew away any shadow of doubt I may have held regarding the work’s brilliance.

Presented as if in rehearsal – i.e. as cheaply as possible, without sets and the absolute minimum of costumes – which was part of Britten’s original intentions for the work – the stage was mostly bare apart from an old battered sofa, some chairs, and the musicians. The Beggar, a speaking role taken by actor Stephen Colfer in the guise of a producer and not a beggar at all, explains that he has written a new satirical piece – the plot of which is too complicated to reveal here. The extensive Baroque dialogue was reduced by playwright Robert Farquhar but still contained the delicious flow found in 18th-century plays. The Beggar, however, whose dialogue was completely new, was occasionally a little tedious, and his omnipresence unnecessary and distracting.

Britten’s score is outstandingly clever, and his arrangement of what he considered “amongst our finest national songs” fits perfectly the mood, atmosphere and sentiment of those complex characters singing them. Mr Peachum sung by Louis Hurst was admittedly a little wooden on the acting front – lines of dialogue broken up uneasily – but Hurst possesses an excellent bass voice with a firm foundation and strong upper register perfect for English opera: coupled with good diction, his Peachum was a first-rate rogue. His wife, Mrs Peachum (obviously), was taken by Rosie Aldridge, the most accomplished of the cast and the finest actress; her lines of dialogue flowed naturally whilst her characterisation was spot on, reinforced by an occasionally violent mezzo-soprano that is perfectly suited to a lady whose hot-headedness makes her spit out her opinions. Wicked, cheating criminal Captain Macheath was every bit the suave, beguiling lover as the crook in Alexander Sprague’s interpretation of the sweetest tunes – ironic that the bad guy should have the nicest music – but nonetheless, with his pleasingly lyrical tenor voice it is no wonder that Sprague’s Macheath gets the girl. Chorus and minor roles aplenty were splendidly acted with entertaining conviction.

Conductors Nicolas André and Opera North’s Richard Farnes (who only arrived for Act II) led 12 members of the RLPO in a well-paced, well-balanced musical treat that I hope will inspire further professional and amateur productions.