Concert Review

The Beggars' Opera Broomhill Opera directed by Jonathan Miller, music arranged by Jonathan Lloyd; musical director Charles Hazelwood. Wilton's Music Hall, 7 December 1999.

Broomhill Opera has kept afloat, against some odds, since 1992, and has given me great pleasure in its several homes. It has scored notable successes over the years, and I have fond memories of The Turn of the Screw and Rodelinda (directed by Jonathan Miller) in the David Salomon's theatre in Southborough, and Il Turco in Italia at Christ's Hospital School, inventiveness compensating financial constraint.

Their new home is the dilapidated Wilton's Music Hall in the East End, which is under renovation. This production was of a familiar favourite of 1728, which has been revived constantly since the legendary production of 1920, when it ran for 1,500 performances initially and gave Kurt Weill one of his best nights in the theatre ever, "a more beautiful and more aggressive production" than his own Dreigroschenoper on the same theme.

Most recently there was a markedly original and successful production at the Bridewell (reviewed by S&H in October '99) with collaboration between homeless Cardboard Citizens and English National Opera. This brought a comfortable middle class audience face to face with some of the realities of London life today.

Jonathan Miller set it in Mayhew's Victorian London, inspired by his description of Wilton's concert-room which attracted to the Eastern Music Hall 'turbulent ruffians downstairs', and above, in the new gallery constructed with barley-sugar cast iron pillars, 'sailors and their women' (Henry Mayhew, 1861). The original MacHeath, Jack Sheppard, was arrested just round the corner in Rosemary-Lane, now Royal Mint Street. It is still a location redolent of history.

Jonathan Miller's production divided critical opinion at its launch. I wondered if it had gone off the boil before I saw it?

From the sailors' gallery, my problems were words unclear in the high barrel-vaulted space, and pacing fatally slow, actors and musicians all. It is hard to maintain interest in a text that everyone knows. The songs failed to take wing, and the singing was really not good enough, even by actorish standards - it was easier to accept amateurs at the Bridewell doing their zestful best, a large company of them storming up and down at the audience's feet to exhilarating effect.

I had no difficulty with the extremely rough period setting and stage business, all absolutely apt for this location, nor with Michael Feast portraying MacHeath as a crude spiv type, nothing at all of the romantic gentleman highwayman. And I enjoyed Jonathan Lloyd's typically quirky and irreverent new score, far from Pepusch & Austin. Lloyd's seemingly semi-improvised music to accompany the traditional tunes was provided by a small band of strings, wind, brass, guitar and accordion, who wandered around in costume, playing in a desultory fashion. This was music which, given attention, revealed its cunning contrivance.

Jonathan Lloyd is a maverick, a real original, whose works are challenging and sometimes uncomfortable. He never quite makes it into the contemporary music establishment; maybe he wouldn't want to. Lloyd's 4th Symphony is in the current NMC catalogue, NMC DO46M. (midprice)

Peter Grahame Woolf

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