John Gay’s 1728 opera was so popular in its time because it erased all the class associations of snobbish Italian opera. Gay kept the popular tunes and set them to earthy lyrics and a story about thieves and whores. Like a jukebox musical, it was a relatable, singalong, non-elitist show.
Director Robert Carsen’s version tries to put the piece into a contemporary context. Gay’s original depicted a world where men slept around and women were either passive objects designed to love the men or prostitutes. Carsen’s update is exactly the same, except there’s also a gag about gay people.
Carsen rewrites the entire libretto, puts the cast in modern dress, wedges in a load of yawn-inducing Brexit jokes, sets it in the 21st century. Then when it comes to doing anything to revise the backwards gender politics of the piece, it stops short. It just doesn’t bother.
“Not everything has to be bent to fit,” Carsen said in an interview. Except here we get a case of everything but the gender politics being bent to fit.
That’s where this remains: firmly an elitist art form. Carsen and co can meddle with the original as far as it suits, and then plead ‘authenticity’ when it comes to actually updating in any meaningful way beyond just the aesthetic and those terrible Brexit gags. They were doing gender-reversed versions of The Beggar’s Opera back in the 18th century for God’s sake. How far backwards have we gone?
Speaking of being decades out of date, the so-called ‘London of today’ where it’s set is a world of East End gangsters and cons. It’s the kind of organised crime, drug-smuggling environment where Ronnie and Reggie Kray might pop out of a dark alley at any moment. This would have been contemporary London 50 years ago. To claim it as that today makes the production look seriously out of touch.
It’s not upending the elitism of opera. It’s entrenching it: look at all these common Cockney crooks to laugh at, effing and jeffing for our delight!
The cast is almost entirely from a musical theatre rather than opera background, not that that matters – the voices are great. There are a couple of good performances, particularly Robert Burt as Mr Peachum and Beverley Klein as Mrs Peachum and the barwoman Diana.
It’s not their fault they’re having to chav up, but there are a few cases of ‘Audrey Hepburn cockney’, with glottal stops chucked in to show they’re trying, but the estuary training is instantly forgotten when they start to sing. It’s proper wa’er-in-Majorca stuff.
Some good bits. Since nothing really survives from the original scores, William Christie has pieced together a version for the excellent period ensemble Les Arts Florissants. Only the basso continuo is written out – performed wonderfully by bassist Doug Balliett and harpsichordist Florian Carre – and the rest is improvised impeccably by the ensemble. There’s also lively, inventive percussion from Marie-Ange Petit who plays, among other tools, the spoons and a whistle that sounds like a seagull.
That’s it. Otherwise, unbearable smugness.