Ballad-Opera by John Gay
realized from the original airs by Benjamin Britten, in three acts
Libretto by John Gay with additional dialogue by Tyrone Guthrie
Setting: London, early 18th century
Duration: 1 hour 50 minutes
First performance: 24 May 1948, Arts Theatre, Cambridge
Beggar: Speaking role
Mrs Peachum: Mezzo-soprano
Mr Peachum: Bass
Polly Peachum: Mezzo-soprano
Captain Macheath: Tenor
Filch: Tenor (or speaking role)
Lucy Lockit: Soprano
Mrs Trapes: Alto
Ladies of the Town: Sopranos/Mezzo-Sopranos
Gentlemen of the Road: Tenors/Baritones/Basses
Mat of the Mint
An alternative version, with the role of Macheath sung by baritone, is available on hire.
What’s it About?
Act 1. At the den of Peachum, a receiver of stolen goods, he and his wife ponder the value of various rogues in their employ before turning their attention to the highwayman Captain Macheath, on whom their daughter Polly dotes. WHen Mrs Peachum and her husband charge her with having married Macheath she is forced to admit it. They console themselves with the prospect that he is likely to be impeached soon for his activities (by them, if no-one else) and Polly left a wealthy widow. She, however, is horrified, and confesses all to the Captain: they decide to part temporarily for safety’s sake. At a tavern near Newgate Prison, a criminal gang assembles with a view to hijacking a coach on Hampstead Heath. Macheath warms them he must lie low for a while. With the others gone, a bevy of loose women enters to entertain him though, primed by Peachum, they are actually there to betray Macheath, who is handed over to the constables as the act ends.
Act 2. In Newgate, Macheath offers to marry the jailer’s pregnant daughter, Lucy Lockit, but her father and Peachum have already hatched a scheme to share the reward due on his execution. The arrival of Polly with her alternative marital claims confuses the issue further: the two women come close to blows.
Act 3. Eventually, Lucy manages to free Macheath with some spare keys, but he is later recaptured and sentenced to death. Having failed to poison Polly, Lucy and her former rival plead with their fathers to get their husband off, but to no avail. Finally, the impresario of the opera, the Beggar, is prevailed upon to grant a reprieve.
Did You Know?
1. This is one of a number of ‘realizations’, or arrangements, Britten made of music by much earlier composers. He also realized works by Purcell (including his opera Dido and Aeneas), Handel, and John Blow among others.
2. John Gay’s original stagework (first performed in 1728) was a ‘ballad opera’: a mixture of popular songs and ballads from England, Ireland, Scotland and France, as well as tunes by other composers of his period.
3. Britten used a very threadbare 1923 edition of Gay’s opera to make his arrangement.
4. Pears performed the role of Macheath in the first production, but later on a version for baritone was made.
5. Britten made some of his arrangement on trains between Milan and Zurich during a recital tour with Pears in 1948. He then only had a few weeks to complete it before the premiere in May that year.
Flute (doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling cor anglais), clarinet in B flat & A, bassoon
Percussion (timpani, triangle, woodblock, tambourine, side drum, tenor drum, bsas drum, suspended cymbals, gong), harp
String quintet (2 violins, viola, cello, double bass)
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