Opera Theater Oregon opened their 2009-2010 season Thursday the 22nd at the Someday Lounge with a fresh re-telling of John Gay’s 1728 Beggar’s Opera, a farce based on the operatic traditions of the day that lampooned London personages and featured low-life characters involved in seedy plots. All of these core elements were kept, but the scene was updated to modern day Portland in this work featuring the talents of librettist/director Stephen Marc Beaudoin and composer/arranger Michael Herrman.
The show began even before the ‘curtain,’ with a group of shoddily dressed performers wandering through the audience and arguing loudly, so that at first it was difficult to tell if it was real or some sort of clever gimmick. The performance began with on-stage vocalises by the ensemble that turned into a wailing cacophony and then morphed into a declamatory air sung by the whole ensemble that directly addressed the audience and explained the purpose of the opera.
The opening scene was set in a pornography store called Peachums-n-Cream. One of the principals, Mrs. Peachum, a sadistic proprietress who wielded a riding crop against virtually everyone in the course of the evening, was sung by Beth Madsen Bradford. She put her comedic talents to good use, often dropping ghastly French phrases spoken in phonetic English, and her opening aria ‘God bless these tools of lust’ was sung with the utmost sincerity and lascivious intent in her full, glorious mezzo. The role of the groping pervert Felch (Peachum’s husband) was sung by Arne Hartmann who also got great laughs throughout the evening.
Soprano Leah Yorkston sang the role of Polly Peachum, their ingenue daughter who, thanks to her parents, discovers in the first scene that her beau, up-and-coming PDX indie rocker Mack the Guitar (sung by tenor Scot Crandal), has been moonlighting in gay porn films. Yorkston was convincing in the role of the poor, confused girl who tries through the course of the evening to figure out what to do with her boyfriend, and showed a fine voice in her aria ‘Mackie my love–I’m shocked he’d do this on film.’ Scot Crandal carried much of the burden of advancing the drama, as it becomes clear that many people are plotting against him and trying to take advantage of his success. His singing was spot-on and well-suited to the role, but the acting was sometimes lacking in conviction. Emily Zahniser played the role of Lucy Lockit, a corrupt cop’s daugher, doing a gratifying send-up of Portland personality Storm Large. Her best singing was as a rocker in the Herrman original tune ‘Lucy’s Song.’ Gigi Urban also deserves mention for her beautiful aria ‘There was a time when life open’d just like a perfect flower.’
Musically the production was a great success. (See the interview with the composer and librettist here for more information on the musical structure.) Herrman wrote a number of original tunes, the most compelling of which were ‘Little Sparrow’ and ‘Song of Redemption.’ It was somewhat incongruous to hear these modern tunes interspersed with other songs from Gay’s opera that retained much of their centuries-old structure (but for the most part with new lyrics by Beaudoin). The incongruity was fun though; it helped to update the ‘attitude’ of the piece, and made for a nice change from the old tunes.
There is very limited staging space at the Someday Lounge, so the cast took the interesting step of just hanging out in the cramped space on stage in full view whenever they weren’t part of the action. The costuming was original, and it was interesting to watch the clever costume changes right on stage. From a staging perspective, the opera was a brilliant case of maximizing the small space and limited set in order to focus most of the attention on the story itself. There were stretches, however, especially in the second half, where the pacing seemed a bit slow for this type of story.
There was lots of good stuff for Portlanders who are in the know as far as local happenings, scandals, personalities and politicians, so its freshness was very effective. With the scenes being set in a porn shop, a strip club, a jail and under the Burnside Bridge, the down-to-earth (yet still intelligent) humor came off smartly for the most part. There were so many coarse one-liners that when one didn’t go over, it didn’t really matter because there was another one right around the corner. This was an ambitious project, and for those who like more than a dash of daring in their opera, who enjoy beautiful music coupled with bawdy humor, it should prove a very enjoyable outing indeed.