A careful look at any high street today perfectly illustrates that the social divide is still with us. People with busy lives visit the mix of shops and offices by day, have fun frequenting bars and restaurants at night, or even make their way to the opera. Busking street musicians play for coins tossed into a hat, beggars beseech passers-by for spare change and a charity hands out food to the needy. All of this was present as if in a reality prelude on a Saturday night walking down Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street heading to the performance of Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland's opera students. 

<i>The Threepenny Opera</i> © Robert McFadzean | Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
The Threepenny Opera
© Robert McFadzean | Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

John Gay intended to shock with The Beggar’s Opera in 18th-century London, Elizabeth Hauptmann translating it for Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill to work on in 1928 Berlin under the chaotic Weimar republic. We may more often see this ‘play with songs’ in the theatre, but bringing it into the opera house is a huge challenge for a company of very able trained singers who have to sharpen their acting skills to deliver the required bracingly savage, gritty and subversive performance. Here, music and text were in German with a very loose modern translation on supertitles from Walter Sutcliffe and RCS Opera director, and conductor Philip White. Director Caroline Clegg took an ensemble approach, her lively libertine players mingled with the audience beforehand and remained onstage throughout, when not in the action joining us as onlookers, a large mirror adding emphasis to our complicity. Designer Finlay McLay provided theatrical hampers for the set which the cast plundered, donning period costumes with contemporary twists and creating props from materials found, all played out in front of a sprightly ten-piece band.

Brechtian rage was not just about the gulf between the haves and have-nots, but against the corruption of big money cementing the differences. In a rogues gallery of characters, Peachum, “the poorest man in London” runs London’s begging trade with his respectable wife and wayward daughter Polly who has taken up with career criminal and womaniser, Macheath. He has London chief sheriff Tiger Brown in his pocket, but as his world unravels and the noose beckons, is there a hope of a last-minute reprieve? 

<i>The Threepenny Opera</i> © Robert McFadzean | Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
The Threepenny Opera
© Robert McFadzean | Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

A street singer in the Prologue gets the best known number The Ballad of Mack the Knife; James Quilligan in PVC cape and top hat set the scene, his lovely voice a contrast to Mack’s dark deeds being enacted. In a strongly sung international cast (eight different nationalities in a 16-strong cast), Timothy Edmundson played Macheath with an over-likeable arrogance, but was true to the scheming character whether in prison or at large. MacArthur Alewel’s gruff baritone as Peachum carried plenty of weight to mind the business as well as rail against his wayward daughter. The women had the edge in this tale, Lea Shaw outstanding as Polly, in the famous Pirate Jenny song, Wiktoria Wizner’s Mrs Peachum full of strong character, no-nonsense as she sets the trap in the brothel to reel Macheath in, and splendidly louche in her Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Emily Hodkinson’s Jenny, Macheath’s favourite brothel girl, gave a lovely Solomon’s Song and a lively Tango Ballad with Macheath, complete with lavishly costumed dancers, and Lucy Vallis was a furious Lucy Brown in her jealousy duet with Polly and in her own aria. The corrupt law enforcers, Aleksander Myrling as Tiger Brown and Tiziano Martini an Smith the policeman, were robustly sung, and well-acted. The whole ensemble executed nimble stagecraft and got the nuances of the text, delivered in impeccable German as well as embracing the cabaret element of the music.  

<i>The Threepenny Opera</i> © Robert McFadzean | Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
The Threepenny Opera
© Robert McFadzean | Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

The band under Philip White were a lively ten-piece, properly sparky, driving the music along restlessly. The harmonium, accordion and slide guitar made interesting colours, but it was the woodwind, spiky piano and precise percussion that conjured up Weill’s pungent score, White keeping it sprightly and perfectly balanced with the singers.

There was certainly fun to be had challenging authority, but perhaps too little of Brecht’s rage was in evidence as some scenes took on a Punch and Judy flavour which eclipsed the serious message. It was genuinely a real treat to hear this piece with opera singers, and there was a high standard of ensemble, if a bit on the polite side. I am not sure we quite reached the dark, angry and bitter places which rather lessened the impact of Macheath’s surprise generous royal pardon. Nevertheless, the final almost Lutheran chorale with written messages held aloft was delivered with verve and passion in this genuinely heartfelt show.

****1