Samuel Arnold: Polly, Aradia Ensemble

The runaway success of John Gay’s hugely popular Beggar’s Opera in 1728, mounted by John Rich (they said: “It made Rich gay and Gay rich”) led to an immediate demand for a sequel. But the original was perceived by some as political satire, so Gay’s Polly, conceived the following year, fell victim to the purdah of the day and was not heard until Samuel Arnold revived it half a century later. So what we have here is a fascinating example of the bran-tub of English 18th-century musical styles: ballad tunes that Pepusch originally arranged for Gay in 1729 are here updated by Arnold, who adds both new melodies of his own and Scottish folk songs, all cleverly re-orchestrated. There’s even a Handel march and the famous Trumpet Voluntary borrowed and brought into service for the exotic new story, which takes Polly Peachum to the West Indies to marry an Indian prince – all highly topical at the time of Captain Cook’s voyages.
The short-breathed songs bubble with exuberance and unexpected inventiveness and the performances by the light-voiced soloists of Toronto’s Aradia Ensemble are sparkling. There are some lively dance sequences for the pirates and Indians which could be performed separately. Don’t expect any deep seriousness, but enjoy a vivid example of popular theatre in London in the years after Handel.