, June 2009
Have you ever really paid attention to the lyric to “Mack the Knife?” I know it may be hard to fully concentrate when you’re confronted with, say, the swingin’ attitude of Bobby Darin or the more understated elegance of Louis Armstrong, but take just a moment to peruse only the first stanza of what may be the most unusual song to ever repeatedly crack the Top 40:
Oh the shark has pretty teeth dear,
And he shows them pearly white
Just a jack-knife has MacHeath dear
And he keeps it out of sight.
Probably due to Kurt Weill’s infectious melody, a lot of listeners probably let the fact that the song is about a serial murderer slip by them. The really interesting thing, at least from a musicological and historical perspective, is that Weill and his librettist Bertolt Brecht, who wrote the tune for their epochal The Threepenny Opera, actually culled the idea for both the song in particular and their entire songspiel from a perhaps less widely known 18th century “ballad opera” entitled The Beggar’s Opera, by John Gay.
Gay’s version lived up to its author’s surname (at least in its older sense), with a broad satiric swipe at everything from politicians (including thinly veiled references to then Prime Minister Walpole) to public mores, all set to at times scathing lyrics sung to popular tunes and even hymns of the day. Weill and Brecht’s version is considerably darker, grittier and more in tune, of course, with the Marxist aims of its authors, who were watching late 1920’s Berlin crumble into the sort of moral chaos that would soon give birth to the National Socialist Movement and Adolf Hitler.
Gay on the other hand had the British class system to pillory, and The Beggar’s Opera is a brisk and witty attack at those who disdain the “lower classes” while simultaneously engaging in behavior that any beggar wouldn’t be caught dead doing. The hero of the piece is the highwayman Macheath (Roger Daltrey), the sort of thief you really can’t hate despite his character flaws (think Lothario mixed with Robin Hood), who has secretly wed Polly Peachum (Carol Hall), a winsome lass who just happens to be the daughter of the town’s most notorious fence and thief catcher. After Mr Peachum (Stratford Johns) gets over the shock of his daughter’s betrothal, he quickly sets about plotting Macheath’s capture, in order to claim a reward, of course. (Patricia Routledge, a favorite for fans of BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, plays Mrs Peachum, a sort of 18th century “bouquet” social climber herself, though one with a lusty penchant that Hyacinth probably would frown upon. For those of you who may not be aware, Routledge is quite an accomplished musical theater actress, with a splendid voice, and she in fact shared the 1968 Best Actress in a Musical Tony for her work in the Vincent Price flop Darling of the Day).
The plot is further complicated by several other women Macheath has wooed (and, probably less shocking to the Augustan audience than we might want to think, impregnated), all of whom are chasing our hapless villain-hero from both the confines of jail and the open countryside where he attempts to continue his robbing ways. Bookending the main tale are vignettes featuring The Beggar (Bob Hoskins), who is the supposed author of the piece.
The Beggar’s Opera is virtually the only refuge from Augustan ballad opera that continues to be performed to this day. Aside from its modern reincarnation as The Threepenny Opera, the original version (more or less) made it to the big screen in a charming if at times patently bizarre version in 1953 directed by Peter Brook (featuring Laurence Olivier in his only musical role—and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Lord Larry atop an obviously fake horse, singing away, while rear projection fills the screen with grainy Technicolor foliage). What this 1983 BBC iteration has going for it is charm, exuberance and wit galore, with an appealing production design and good to excellent singing by all of the leads. Daltrey might at first blush seem like an odd choice for something this “legitimate,” but the fact is Gay’s opera, as mentioned above, borrowed from what were the “pop tunes” of the day, and so Daltrey’s vocal style is certainly perfectly in tune with that formulation.
The music is undeniably authentic sounding, especially in the stellar work of John Eliot Gardner and The English Baroque Soloists. While some purists will no doubt take exception to the change in the ending, the fact is Gay sort of hedges his bets in the original anyway, setting up the ending that this version uses, only to jettison it to appeal to public sentiment. I guess late 20th century audiences weren’t expected to demand happily ever after, for whatever that’s worth.
The 1953 film version, which is really quite a splendid little romp in and of itself, has just been released as part of the new Warner Archive Collection. It’s one of the better transfers I’ve seen from that collection, and would make a delightful companion piece to this more faithful to the original rendition of Gay’s evidently indestructible idea. When you consider the actual concept of The Beggar’s Opera made it to Gay by way of Jonathan Swift, you realize that the same trenchant intelligence that gave us everything from “Gulliver’s Travels” to “A Modest Proposal” is lurking just beneath the surface of this sparkling entertainment. It’s like a very fizzy sparkling cider that has just a bit of a bite for a finish. This wonderful version retains both the carbonation and the sting.
This is one of the better looking 1980s British television pieces I’ve seen. With above-average color and saturation, and a decent, if not outstanding, level of detail, The Beggar’s Opera is certainly not going to make headlines for video quality, but may surprise most viewers who have come to expect British television of this vintage to look pretty drab. The full frame image has no noticeable degradation or damage to speak of.
The PCM Stereo soundtrack is also quite excellent. I picked up virtually no evidence of hiss or aging, and both the simple, yet effective, continuo accompaniment and the singing are reproduced with excellent fidelity. Subtitles are available in English, French, Spanish and German.
None are offered on the DVD itself, but the insert booklet has a wealth of supplementary information.
This is a boisterous, swift (no pun intended) and charming production of one of the most downright fun pieces to grace any stage over the past several hundred years. Roger Daltrey acquits himself quite admirably as Macheath, and the entire supporting cast is wonderful, matched by a sterling physical production and outstanding musical direction from John Eliot Gardner. Highly recommended