Young cast sparks Frost Opera Theater’s clever punk version of “Beggar’s Opera”
The enterprising Frost Opera Theater opened an intimate yet highly creative production of The Beggar’s Opera Thursday night at the University of Miami’s Clarke Recital Hall. Originally conceived by John Gay in 1728, the ballad opera satirized British political corruption and hypocrisy as well as the conventions of Italian opera which were all the rage in the London of that era.
Utilizing popular airs and folk tunes that were familiar to his audience, Gay wrote new lyrics that fit his tale of the criminal highwayman Macheath and crooked officialdom of the English justice system. This pathbreaking musical theater work was the forerunner of the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Some two hundred years later, in 1928, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht would utilize Gay’s scenario for The Threepenny Opera, a much darker social critique of Weimar Germany.
Gay’s satire has received numerous adaptations. Peter Brook and Laurence Olivier produced an ambitious but overstuffed film version in the early 1950s. The Frost production was based on Benjamin Britten’s operatic adaptation of 1948 for the English Opera Group. Britten’s elaborations of Gay’s ballads often added modern harmonies and elaborate choral arrangements. Britten’s collaborator was the renowned theatrical director Sir Tyrone Guthrie who wrote additional lyrics and revised the libretto.
The Frost’s trim, two hour version is directed, designed and conducted by Dean Southern. Envisioning the work through the sensibilities—if that’s the word—of the punk movement of the 1970s and 80s, Southern attempts to connect the anarchic, anti-establishment aesthetic of punk rockers with Gay’s sophisticated satire. That approach might be more relevant to the Weill-Brecht opus, yet Frost Opera Theater’s production proved vastly entertaining.
With a few props and a simple unit set of a Union Jack emblazoned with the show’s marquee and two walls splattered with punk graffiti, Southern moves the action swiftly. Actors make entrances and exits through the audience. In a work with a large cast, each character is vibrantly brought to life. The highwaymen and ladies of the evening also act as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action even as they propel the story. The singers created their own punk costumes, many influenced by the iconic Sid Vicious and The Sex Pistols, whose music is heard as a prelude to the production.
A double-cast lineup of talented singing actors from the Frost opera and vocal program populate Southern’s lively theatrical high jinks. Cody Parrott’s sweet-toned lyric tenor and punk rock persona properly dominate the show as the notorious Macheath. He manages to ring sympathy for a thief, bigamist and general lowlife. (Britten expanded the role for his companion and tenor muse Peter Pears.)
As Polly Peachum, Holly Jamison is a born comedienne with a light, pure soprano that can spin a phrase with the utmost enchantment. In their duets, Jamison and Parrott offered dulcet, wonderfully blended vocal hues. Kathryn Kupchik brings glamour and myriad vocal coloration to Polly’s rival Lucy Lockit. Her jilted monologue and the scene in which she attempts to poison Polly are hilarious, the two comic actresses exhibiting skillful timing and command of the stage. Jamison, Kupchik and Parrott were both touching and vocally thrilling in the trio near the conclusion as Macheath is about to be executed.
Maria Fenty Denison was a standout as the scheming Mrs. Peachum. Her rich mezzo timbre and saucy persona lit up the stage in a role that can be unsympathetic in less gifted hands. Aaron Kaswen was the virile voiced beggar of the title. (The production seems to suggest that he is hanged in Macheath’s stead after the rather clunky happy-ending reprieve.) Ryan Hill, a skilled character actor and fine bass-baritone, was the scene-stealing corrupt jailer Lockit. Daniel Grambow’s stentorian vocal projection and stage presence dominated his scenes as the evil Peachum. Although her role was considerably reduced in this version, Reba Evans was a hilariously tipsy Mrs. Trapes, her aria recalling her youth delicately spun.
The chorus of various subsidiary characters was outstanding, bringing strength to Britten’s beautiful ensemble writing. Yueh-Yin Liao and Geoffrey Loff played the duo-piano reduction of Britten’s instrumental score with splendid articulation and beautifully nuanced subtlety, always flexible to the needs of the singers. Southern conducted a skillfully paced, engaging performance. At its best, this Beggar’s Opera exceeded its intimate scale to deliver vividly realized music theater.
Frost Opera Theater repeats The Beggar’s Opera at 7 p.m.. Friday and Saturday at Clarke Recital Hall, University of Miami. 305-284-4886; music.miami.edu.
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Fri Nov 5, 2010
at 9:51 am