Created especially for television, this version of John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera" captures the quality and satiric edge of the Hogarth engravings which influenced Gay's original version. The characters of this highly-spir... more »ited comedy of London's lowlife thrive on thieving, lechery and deceit. Starring Bob Hoskins and Roger Daltrey of The Who, "The Beggar's Opera" is one of the great seminal works of British musical theatre and has achieved staggering success continuously since its first performance in 1728.« less
"To those reviewers who long for the Olivier version and who think of The Beggar's Opera through the charming lens of the 1920s revival: Gay would be spinning in his grave if he ever heard someone use the word "romantic" in conjunction with his acid little play. I know that the play took on a life of its own, and was revived virtually every season throughout the 18th century, but let's not forget that he was out to write a scathing satire of the political and social corruptions of his day: the very idea of having a beggar write an "opera" for the marriage celebration of two catch-singers seemed so outrageous that the audience wasn't sure whether or not to boo it offstage until the middle of the first act. Audiences in 1728 loved it because it ridiculed rich and powerful political figures while it skewered the pretensions of Italian opera and opera-singers; audiences afterwards got charmed by the songs and by the mythology of its characters, as the play lost its immediate topical sting.
Jonathan Miller's production attempts to restore something of the grittiness of the original play, both by having Roger Daltrey as Macheath and by recreating the squalor of Peachum's lock and of Newgate prison (compare Miller's set of Newgate with Hogarth's famous painting of Act III and you'll see what I mean). Daltrey is both good and not good as Macheath: Macheath does have something of the rock-star about him--and makes Polly and Lucy's attraction to him plausible--and Daltrey's sneer captures the cynicism that underlines Macheath's character. Moreover, Daltrey rises to the occasion perfectly when he sings the "Greensleeves" rewrite "Since Laws were made for ev'ry Degree", thundering out his bitterness with a power that could only come from someone more used to belting out "Young Man's Blues" than Handel. I'm a little surprised that one reviewer would refer to him as a "boy"--Daltrey was 39 when this production was made in 1983. However, he sometimes seems a little out of place with more classically trained singers, such as Carol Hall (a staple of John Eliot Gardiner's Montiverdi Choir). He may also strike some as too "modern" for what is presented here as a period-piece, tho' personally I found Daltrey made the piece more accessible.
As for the rest of the cast: Peachum is a hoot, and Mrs. Peachum is delightfully grubby. Lockit gets a bit annoying after a while, but he really is a one-dimensional character. The teo female leads are equally matched, as Gay's beggar says they should be: Polly tries to be as starched and respectable as Lucy tries to enjoy her low status. Kudos also to the Broadside Band for their excellent period-instrument rendering of the music--again, a vast improvement over more "romantic" conceptions of the opera.
Two criticisms to finish off: why Miller changed the ending is beyond me,and is the biggest misstep in an otherwise fine production. The sound, as others have noted, is terrible: a real hindrance for those trying to hear the music. Given that this was recorded for TV in 1983, some of the technical problems are excusable--but a digitally remastered version of the soundtrack would be most welcome.
Not a perfect rendering of the Beggar's Opera, but one appreciably closer to an eighteenth-century sensibility than previous versions."
A must if you teach the Beggar's Opera!
N. Chevalier | 03/23/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
" If you teach the Beggar's Opera, especially at the college level, you can't do better than this lively, funny version of the original play. The ending is somewhat changed, but only slightly (you'll see). Bob Hoskins has a cute cameo, Peachum and Lockit are a delight, and Roger Daltrey is dashing and perfect as the ladykiller highwayman, Macheath. My only frustration is that the English accents are so thick (the Cockney is intense!) that sometimes the film seems to need subtitles. But it's a magnificent version, and my college students consistently love it."
Excellent direction and performances
N. Chevalier | 03/05/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Although I understand the complaints about the dialogue being unintelligible, I actually thought the songs were very easy to understand. Both the singing and the general presentation of the music were excellent--John Eliot Gardner does a great job of music direction. I also agree that this is an excellent version to use in teaching; it's lively, thoughtful, virtually uncut, and offers some interesting interpretations. (Jonathan Miller diverges from the text at the end, but it is a thought-provoking divergence.) It's not a sugar-candy version of the Opera, but since the threat of death by hanging is a central element of the text, I don't see the gritty aspects of this performance as a problem."
Begging for words
N. Chevalier | 10/21/2001
(3 out of 5 stars)
"This DVD leaves me with very mixed feelings. It is obvious that Jonathan Miller has directed a superb production with wonderful actors. But it is difficult to understand what is going on. I place the blame not on the almost 300-year-old language, nor on the delicious, low-class accents. The whole thing sounds like it was recorded in a vast, hyper-reverberant lavatory. A modern Hollywood blockbuster with the same sound engineering would be similarly unintelligible.This is a major, important video of a major piece with a major director and impeccable cast. Let us hope that in the future a new release will feature improved sound, or at least subtitles (even though subtitles should be entirely unnecessary). Chances are that you have seen the entire cast in other projects and had no difficulty understanding them. Chances are you have seen some of the BBC Shakespeare series and had less trouble understanding the actors there.Until the new release happens, you may have to settle for the lesser film (but at least intelligible) Mack the Knife, based roughly on the same story, and with Kurt Weill's delicious music."
A near perfect performance
N. Chevalier | 05/13/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I'm fairly familiar with both the period when the Beggar's Opera was written and with the popular tunes it is based on. Its only real flaw is that Roger Daltrey is not the best singer for this type of music. It pays to know (or look up) the traditional lyrics used with the tunes, as Gay seems to have written his lyrics with reference to them (and the original audience would have known them). Comparison of both versions often reveals a satiric intent. There are many period jokes, such as when a lawyer who specializes in defending various types of thieves reads out a client list of pickpockets, houebreakers, etc. and the list includes "tailor." Tailors were often accused of appropriating some of the fabric provided by their clients and pretending it had been used up in the garment.To me, at least, this was a very witty opera with lots of action as well as good music."