This month sees the Taiwan release of four items new to DVD from Well Go USA. They're a mixed bag, but with much of interest. Most of all, two of the opera productions show with great clarity how classic works can be successfully modernized, and how they can't. First, however, 18th-century London's biggest theatrical hit.
In 1728 The Beggar's Opera astonished everyone. In reality it wasn't an opera at all but a spoken drama with simple popular songs added. More importantly, it treated material that formal opera never touched — the lives of the poor, in particular the criminal poor. But it also contained upper-class characters, notably people who benefited from the same criminals' activities.
Because of its intense social realism, and in particular its fascination with social class, this was a quintessentially English product. Audiences responded immediately to its truth to life, and John Gay's play-with-songs — in effect the first ever musical — became the most profitable stage show of its time.
It was entirely appropriate, then, that in reviving it for BBC TV in 1983 director Jonathan Miller drew on a wide range of English comic actors, notably Stratford Johns who plays Peachum, an affluent receiver of stolen goods. But in an even bolder stroke Miller recruited Roger Daltry, vocalist with legendary 1960s band The Who, as Macheath, the working-class lead. Even more bizarrely the musical director was John Eliot Gardiner, a specialist in Baroque Era music.
The result was a great success. Even though as an actor Daltry feels like an amateur among professionals, this English mix of bawdy comedy, simple tunes and what were once catchy lyrics worked very well. It's good and is now available on DVD.
Everyone in the serious opera business agrees that you can't go on for ever performing operas in the way they were intended by their composers. Sooner or later new light has to be let in, and imaginative stage directors allowed to create versions that, though hopefully true to the spirit of the originals, shed new light on the possibilities implicit in them.
One very successful attempt to do this was the English National Opera's 1986 version of Dvorak's Rusalka. Dvorak wasn't usually an opera composer, but this late work has a very remarkable flow and naturalness about it. Largely neglected for a hundred years, it was revived in the last decades of the 20th century and proved much to the taste of the times.
The story tells of a wood-nymph who wants to become a humanbeing to experience love. It originally had a rural setting, in a forest and on the shores of a lake, but the ENO broke radically with this and re-located it to a Victorian nursery. David Pountney, the director, said he thought this was justified because what the opera was really about was a girl becoming sexually aware. The conflict between repression and dreams of freedom that could be said to characterize Victorian girlhood (as seen in many stories, such as the Alice books and the novels of Charlotte Bronte) made this an appropriate change.
The transposition works brilliantly. The stage is filled with glass cages with golden knobs that slide this way and that, and phantasmagoric figures that certainly do resemble the surreal adult world perceived by Lewis Carroll's Alice. Furthermore, it's musically fine into the bargain. The 1980s was the era when the ENO was in its prime, and Mark Elder here conducts the rich score with feeling and understanding. Eilene Hannan is perfect as the young girl Rusalka, and Ann Howard is excellent as the witch Jezibaba, as is John Treleaven as the Prince who Rusalka so fatally falls in love with.