Benjamin Britten's 1948 version of "The Beggar's Opera" contains more of the original tunes assembled by John Gay for his 1728 ballad opera than most other modern versions. It also bears the most individualistic imprint of any modern version, to the extent that Britten is fully justified in designating it as his Op. 43. The orchestration is distinctively quirky; the chamber ensemble for which he arranged it is strikingly similar to that of "The Rape of Lucretia" and "Albert Herring," and it makes no attempt to disguise its twentieth century idiom. Harmonically, too, Britten lets his imagination run free, and his accompaniments are unmistakably modern. In his treatment of the folk, popular, and classical melodies to which Gay attached his lyrics, though, Britten is scrupulously faithful to the originals, retaining all the eccentricities that can sound quite odd to modern ears, and which tend to get smoothed out and made "prettier" in most modern editions of the work.
Ballad opera is not a familiar genre, this being the only piece of its type that's performed with any frequency. It is more like a musical comedy than any kind of opera, but its brief snippets of dialogue alternating with brief songs, frequently a single verse, give it a stop-and-start quality that isn't immediately easy for contemporary audiences to relate to. There is considerable wit (and innuendo) in the text, which Britten's ingenious setting heightens, and plenty to appeal to adventurous listeners. This performance of the complete work, including dialogue (which is delivered energetically throughout), makes a strong case for the piece. The singing overall is adequate, of the caliber expected of a Gilbert and Sullivan production. Tom Randle is a somewhat nasal Macheath with excessive vibrato, and Leah-Marian Jones a mature-sounding Polly, but veterans Jeremy White and Susan Bickley are in fine voice, and deliver splendidly vivid characterizations of Mr. and Mrs. Peachum. The City of London Sinfonia plays with precision and high spirits for Christian Curnyn, whose reading is well attuned to the humor and eccentricities in the score. Chandos' sound is clear and present, but doesn't do much to create a sense of dramatic space.