As conceived by John Gay early in the 18th century, "The Beggar's Opera" was a broad comedy with undercurrents of political, social and musical satire. Its loose story line of a profligate highwayman (and his several women), who escapes the gallows only through the intervention of the most blatant deus ex machina, is strung with a Top 70 or so of the greatest hits of the 1720s, and tosses barbs at Robert Walpole and his peers, British manners and their hypocrisies, and Handel's operas and their artificialities.
Through the years, the opera has undergone a great many musical reworkings, the most recent of which is Benjamin Britten's version, which is being performed this weekend at the University of Maryland's Tawes Theater by students of the music department.
Although the original arrangements of the opera's tunes were simple and had no particular dramatic implications of their own, Britten, ever the consummate dramatist, provided music with all sorts of dramatic content, music that at times controls the pace of the play. His version is a more sophisticated musical theater and requires the most balanced and well-rounded forces.
Last night's performance had not yet found a working balance between the farcical and the satirical. The humor was not broad enough, nor the satire sharp enough, to keep things either funny or provoking, or, ideally, both. The shortcomings lay more in the acting than the music, and were compounded by the subtleties that the Britten score implies.
There were performers who both acted and sang extremely well; particularly Guoda Puzinauskas as Polly Peachum, Martin Rosol as Filch, and Sally Waldron, who played both Mrs. Trapes and the Author. In other major roles, William Commins, although beautiful as Mr. Peachum, acted stiffly and sang muddily. Michael Blaney sang MacHeath's songs nicely but needs to be larger in the comic role. Susan Greenleaf is on her way to becomming a convincingly sluttish Lucy Lockit, and Gordon Hawkins, as Lockit, sang beautifully but has a lot to learn about acting.
William Hudson had his orchestra in fine form, and the sets, lighting and costumes were the hit of the evening.