The locale was almost as much of an attraction as the words and music this past weekend when Opera Americana gave two performances of "The Beggar's Opera" in Gadsby's Tavern, Alexandria. The tavern, with two expertly restored segments dating from 1770 and 1792, is not quite as old as the opera, which was first produced in London in 1728, but it provides exactly the right ambiance for it.
"The Beggar's Opera" was an instant hit, struck a death blow to Italian opera seria, which had previously been stylish in London, and drastically changed the career of George Frideric Handel, ultimately forcing him to abandon opera for oratorio. It was a runaway smash and stayed that way for a long time. Its use of popular tunes arranged by Christopher Pepusch with new words by John Gay and its hard-hitting, cynical satire, comparing the morals of the English ruling class with those of highwaymen, swindlers and prostitutes, was apparently as appealing as it was shocking. It was brought to the American colonies, where it survived the Revolution and continued to be performed well into the 19th century.
Some of those American performances probably took place in Gadsby's Tavern, and they may even have been a little bit like the Opera Americana production, which included people in 18th-century costume sitting in the audience, making occasional remarks during the performance and throwing missiles that ranged from flowers to orange peels at the players. Some stood around the lobby during intermission discussing 18th-century politics, while an attractive costumed woman sold oranges and distributed free sexual innuendos to lucky male patrons. The script is slightly localized, with references to Georgetown, Royal Street and so on.
The show itself had to be strong to hold its own against the strong ambiance, and fortunately it was, with imaginative direction by Steven Lampredi and an excellent little "orchestra" of violin, cello and harpsichord, led by Russell Woollen, playing the music from the show's third edition (1728) with some additions. Two voices were particularly notable: Kathy Kessler Price as Polly Peachum and Linda Drew Kirk as Lucy Lockit. Sally Martin (as Jenny Diver) and Loree Capper (Suky Tawdry) did not have as much opportunity to sing but had impressive stage presence in relatively small roles. Among the men, Jonathan Lash (Lockit) made the strongest impression vocally on Saturday night. Richard Potter (Macheath) showed a fine flair for comic acting. His voice was good but not under perfect control.
Richard Michael Slater (Peachum) has a commanding presence and a powerful voice that he had to rein in to suit the smallish room's acoustics. Similar problems of adjustment were successfully made by soprano Julee McClelland, who had a small role in the opera but gave an entr'acte recital that included "A New Song by W.A. Mozart" (from "Idomeneo") sung in a voice of heroic potentials. Jack Goldklang acted well in two supporting roles, and the choruses of thieves and prostitutes were excellent.
The show will be repeated Friday and Saturday in the Atrium, another vintage performing space in Alexandria.