John Gay (1685-1732), a genial poet and playwright with a talent for satire, got the idea for The Beggar’s Opera from his friend, the satirist Jonathan Swift, who had mentioned to him that “A Newgate pastoral might make a pretty sort of thing”. It was staged by the actor-manager John Rich (who introduced pantomime to England) and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, making, it was said, “Gay rich and Rich gay”. In general, ballad opera, set among London’s criminal classes and full of satirical jibes about corruption in high places, suited English taste better than Handel’s heroic operas by the 1720s.
Created specially for television, this Beggar’s Opera captures the quality and satiric edge of the Hogarth engravings which influenced Gay’s original version. The characters of this highly-spirited comedy of London low-life thrived on thieving, lechery and deceit: Peachum (Streatford Johns), the receiver of stolen goods, shops his clients when it suits him; Macheath, the highwayman, has married Polly Peachum (Carol Hall) but is promised to Lucy Lockit (Rosemary Ashe). Lucy tries to poison her rival, Polly; Peachum and Lockit can both profit from Macheath’s demise and so he is brought to the gallows through his lecherous exploits. Lust, greed and corruption abound in this exuberant piece of popular theatre.
The music for this production has been arranged from the eighteenth-century folksongs of the original (selected by Johann Christoph Pepusch) by baroque specialists Jeremy Barlow and John Eliot Gardiner, who conducts The English Baroque Soloists, performing on authentic period instruments.
Roger Daltrey, lead singer of The Who and star of the films including Tommy, McVicar and Lisztomania, heads a distinguished cast as the villainous hero Macheath.