The Polly we can hear – and enjoy – on this disc had quite a complex genesis, bound up with the politics of eighteenth century England. Polly was originally written in 1729, by John Gay and Johann Christian Pepusch, as a sequel to The Beggar’s Opera, the great success of the previous year at Lincoln Inn Fields Theatre. The satire on Sir Robert Walpole in The Beggar’s Opera had been so well-directed, and so sharply felt, that Polly was kept from performance by the government, although the text was printed and was widely bought and read. Much later in the century Samuel Arnold, house-composer at the Haymarket Little Theatre, reworked Pepusch’s music - with a great many substitutions, additions and abridgements. The text was revised - with fair freedom - by the dramatist George Colman (1732-1794), a long-term collaborator of Arnold’s and manager of the Haymarket Little Theatre. By the time they had finished, the result contained at least as much of Arnold-Colman as it did of Pepusch-Gay. Indeed it also included some borrowings from Jeremiah Clarke and Thomas Arne. Surviving printed and manuscript texts have been edited by Robert Hoskins, a leading authority on Arnold, who provides a very useful and perceptive note on the music in the accompanying booklet. The result of all this ‘collaboration’ is thoroughly enjoyable!
Essentially the sequel transports - in several senses of the word - the survivors of The Beggar’s Opera to the West Indies, which allows for a kind of mild exoticism not possible in the taverns and prisons of that earlier work. But the connection with the preceding work is neatly established by Arnold’s overture, a charming melange of melodies from The Beggar’s Opera. The essential message of the later work remains much the same:
Observe the Statesman’s ways,
The Pimp’s are just the same;
And both their own conditions raise
On others guilt, and shame
– although it is presented with rather less force than in the earlier work. The details of the plot needn’t trouble us here – it is enough to know that Macheath becomes a pirate and dies, while Polly rescues an Indian prince and marries him. Ideally, one needs to follow the libretto (available online) while listening – since the spoken dialogue is omitted from this recording and a good deal of the humour and the coherence of the plot is lost without knowledge of it.
Arnold’s music is everywhere engaging; naturally enough, no great profundity or complexity is aimed at, but the entertainment and charm are consistent throughout. What sounds like a predominantly young, and almost wholly Canadian cast, acquits itself very decently, and the playing of the Aradia Ensemble is wholly idiomatic.
This is hardly any sort of towering masterpiece, but this attractive recording fills out very nicely the picture of popular English theatre music in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and is readily recommendable. Maybe the same forces would like to tackle another Colman-Arnold collaboration performed in the very same year as Polly (1777), The Spanish Barber, based on Beaumarchais’ Le Barbier de Séville, foundation of some rather more famous operatic adaptations?
This is a world premiere recording.
See also review by Jonathan Woolf