The primarily South African Broomhill Opera, whose London home is the restored Wilton’s Music Hall, saw great success at last summer’s Intl. Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven with its South African interpretation of the Chester Mystery Plays, which it has toured internationally. And so the company is back in New Haven for this summer’s fest, repeating “The Mysteries” and introducing “Ibali Ioo Tsotsi,” a South African interpretation of John Gay’s 1728 “The Beggar’s Opera,” which had a score of existing popular music arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch. Performed in Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu and heavily accented English, its dialogue and lyrics are virtually incomprehensible to U.S. audiences, and the production cries out for surtitles. Yet it’s so enchanting most of the time, notably in its mostly unaccompanied massed choral work, and its creators and performers project such enthusiasm, that literal comprehension is almost beside the point; after all, the tribulations of Macheath are reasonably well known, mainly via Brecht and Weill’s 1928 adaptation “The Threepenny Opera.”
Gay’s ballad/folk opera is played out in what is apparently the Broomhill Opera’s set for all its productions. It’s a scaffolded series of stage-surrounding balconies that this time are embellished by hangman’s nooses suspended from the flies. The costumes are primarily brightly hued South African garb with a few suggestions of the 18th century including buckled shoes, wigs and, for Mrs. Peachum, a cut-out wired crinoline. Most of the performers, since they are playing beggars, prostitutes, pimps and other lowlifes, are barefoot.
The production opens with a spoken introduction from the ragged beggar who ostensibly wrote the opera, which in Gay’s time was a social and political satire as well as a spoof of the then-current craze for Italian opera. A delightful touch follows: a music box playing “Greensleeves” as an overture.
The cast appears en masse, all apparently blind beggars using their staffs to tap the stage in time to the tune, which, toward the end of the production, is used for Macheath’s pre-hanging aria. For this production, Charles Hazlewood has rearranged the score using South African elements, though quite often allowing the melodies chosen by Pepusch to soar unembellished, to charming effect. There are, however, massed sung and danced numbers that are strongly South African, plus exuberant whistling and shouting.
The production flies by as Macheath marries Polly Peachum even though Lucy Lockit is pregnant with his child, goes to prison and almost ends up swinging from one of the nooses. Happily, there’s a reprieve just before the finale, the beggar-playwright supplying a happy ending “to comply with the tastes of the town.”
Act two begins with massed male voices heard from behind the audience, with the men coming down the aisles, staffs in hand, which now represent the bars of the prison they and Macheath are in. After Macheath (Bongani Bubu) sings his final aria, the ensemble quietly hums “Greensleeves” behind the ensuing dialogue, another sophisticated and charming touch. There’s no doubt that music, dance and energy drive this production, not the spoken word; the finale is an overwhelming massed choral outburst.
Although much of the singing is a cappella, there is a range of percussion instruments onstage, including wooden xylophones and drums, plus a violinist, among others.
The massed singing does overshadow the solo singing, which sometimes is off-key. But it’s the overall effervescent impact of this “Beggar’s Opera,” first seen in Cape Town in January 2002 and London in October, that distinguishes it, rather than individual perfs. If some of creator-director Mark Dornford-May’s directorial gestures are familiar from his two Broomhill productions seen in New Haven last year (the other was “Carmen”), they’re still, for the most part, enormously effective.