ClassicsOnline Home » ARNOLD, S.: Polly (Albino, McLeod, Grossman, Newman, Aradia Ensemble, Mallon)
Pepusch’s ballad opera Polly, composed in 1729 to John Gay’s libretto as a sequel to their highly successful The Beggar’s Opera (1728), never reached the stage owing to government censorship. In 1777, Samuel Arnold completely renovated the score, which established his reputation as London’s preeminent theatre composer. With its melodramatic tale reuniting Polly Peachum and Macheath in the West Indies and ending in Polly’s marriage to the ‘Indian prince’ Cawwawkee, this ‘island paradise’ opera was a huge hit and remains enormously entertaining today.
Samuel Arnold (1740–1802)
Music composed and arranged by Dr Samuel Arnold (1740–1802) after Polly, a ballad opera by Johann Christoph Pepusch (1667–1732)
Libretto by John Gay (1685–1732)
Revised by George Colman, The Elder (1732–1794)
Edited by Robert Hoskins
Polly – Laura Albino, Soprano
Mrs Ducat – Eve Rachel McLeod, Soprano
Damaris, Indian Scout – Gillian Grossman, Soprano
Jenny Diver – Marion Newman, Mezzo-soprano
Trapes – Loralie Kirkpatrick, Mezzo-soprano
Cawwawkee – Bud Roach, Tenor
Culverin – Lawrence J. Wiliford, Tenor
Vanderbluff – Andrew Mahon, Baritone
Morano – Matthew Grosfeld, Bass
Ducat – Jason Nedecky, Baritone
Polly (1729), a ballad opera with tunes harmonized by Johann Christoph Pepusch to a libretto by John Gay, was written as a sequel to The Beggar’s Opera (1728). Because the hugely successful parent work had so sharply satirized Sir Robert Walpole, a government crackdown was engineered during the rehearsal period
to prevent Polly from being staged, but Gay’s Tory friends ensured that the printed text sold well. Almost fifty years later, on 19 June 1777, Polly was performed at the Haymarket Little Theatre. The libretto was a cut version by the elder George Colman with a completely renovated score by Samuel Arnold.
Polly was one of the works that established Arnold’s reputation as London’s preeminent theatre composer. Audiences liked the music from the opening bars (“we do not remember any Overture being more enjoyed”) and also the singers (except for Hester Colles in the title rôle, who sang “horribly out of tune”). The production suited the limited space of the Haymarket Little Theatre. The cast was comprised of young singers with light voices, which carried well; a small orchestra limited to a dozen players who sat pretty well on stage accompanied them. Polly was also a success because Colman realised that an “island paradise” play (set in the West Indies) was good copy at a time when Cook’s voyages, along with wider issues of colonialism and race, were topical. The tropical island Eden of Tahiti as described by Cook and Banks, for example, could easily serve as the canvas for the opera’s final scene when Polly, stepping backwards in time into the wilderness, marries Cawwawkee, an Indian prince. Furthermore, for audiences in 1777, Cawwawkee had a living prototype in Mai, the Society Islander whom Cook had brought to England.
Samuel Arnold was born in London and educated at the Chapel Royal. His first theatre work, The Maid of the Mill (1765), introduced London audiences to operatic action finales. Another success, The Portrait (1770), set to a witty libretto by the elder George Colman (1732–1794), provided an English alternative to Pergolesi’s popular La serva padrona. When Colman assumed the management of the Haymarket Little Theatre, he employed Arnold as “house” composer, a post Arnold maintained for 25 years. The opening season at the Haymarket Little Theatre, during the summer months of 1777, not only saw the production of Polly but also The Spanish Barber, based on Colman’s translation of Beaumarchais. Arnold composed some sixty stage works during his long career, including The Castle of Andalusia(1782), a pseudo-gothic work, and Inkle and Yarico (1787), an antislavery opera recalled by George Eliot in Brother Jacob and Balzac in Lost Illusions. Arnold was also a noted conductor, organist, and editor of Handel’s works. He received the degree of Doctor of Music at Oxford in 1773 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Colman’s revisions involved Arnold in the complex process of orchestrating Pepusch’s vocal score, making substantial cuts, replacing some old borrowings with new, and composing an overture (Pepusch had not written one) with over fifteen vocal items and two sets of dances. The result was an up-to-the-minute and audience-savvy opera. Comparison of the manuscript score of orchestral parts in the Houghton Library at Harvard, the Larpent manuscript of the libretto sent to the Lord Chamberlain for censorship on 15 April 1777, the libretto published by Thomas Evans on 20th June 1777, and the extant printed texts with authorial revisions, reveal that musical and textual changes continued to be made throughout the entire rehearsal period. This edition of Polly, reconstructed from Houghton fMS Mus 97 (a set of orchestral parts), represents the opera as performed in 1777. The songwords use the libretto published by Thomas Evans as copy-text.
Newly arrived in the West Indies and in search of her husband Macheath, a transported felon, Polly Peachum finds herself the innocent victim of sex traffic. Sold by Mrs Trapes to Ducat, a wealthy plantation owner, she discovers Macheath is captain of a pirate gang that is stirring up rebellion in the colony. Just as she rebuffs Ducat’s advances , news breaks of a violent skirmish. Ducat departs to rally the militia  and Polly, with the assistance of Ducat’s wife, flees the plantation in male disguise . Arnold’s overture , a medley of tunes from The Beggar’s Opera, deftly links the two operas. Furthermore, the lyric middle section recalls Polly falling in love with Macheath—a cue for the tender feeling she expresses in her two opening solos  . Throughout the act, the songs of Ducat   reveal him as a rake and those of his wife   as overwrought by his womanizing: worldly-wise remarks come from Mrs Trapes   and Damaris the scullery maid  .
Polly scours the countryside for Macheath  and is discovered asleep  by pirates, whose appearance is anticipated in a set of entr’acte dances –. She is escorted to the camp where Morano (Macheath in black-face disguise) is taking leave of Jenny Diver (who
claims Macheath as her husband) to join a scouting party. Macheath’s music brands him as a daredevil    , and indeed much of the music in this act adopts a swashbuckling tone (sometimes edged with cynicism). Although Jenny has set her claws into Macheath, she is not beyond flirting with Polly , who claims to be a recruit. Cawwawkee, an Indian prince, is captured by Morano’s band and, though brought in as a prisoner, he makes a stately entrance.
Polly, on the alert to take control of events, dupes the guards into releasing Cawwawkee and later, in the heat of battle between the militia and rebels, she takes Morano prisoner. Identities are now revealed but Macheath’s is too late to save his life (thus marking off the boundary of The Beggar’s Opera where a “reprieve” at the outcome was guaranteed). Polly, overpowered by Macheath’s death , sinks into Cawwawkee’s arms as
the chorus celebrates victory with the triumphal music of Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary . This act includes Morano’s most subversive song ‚ and Polly’s least repressed —unrepressed because it marks the moment when she makes a rapturous promise to Cawwawkee (“Now Prince, I shall have the happiness of restoring you to your father”).
The borrowed music in the 1777 version of Polly is mainly drawn from Pepusch’s 1729 score but in some instances Arnold decided to provide new choices, chiefly gathered from the Scottish folk-song sources that had been so usefully employed in The Beggar’s Opera. In Polly’s Act I air “The crow or daw thro’ all the year,”  set to Johnny Fa’, for example, Arnold wished to underpin the theme of adulterous love: in the folk-song, the knight’s wife runs off with a gypsy, and here, the gypsy pertains to the crow and the woman to a snared bird; Arnold’s repeating horns perhaps represent the jaws of the waiting trap. In Act II Morano’s “Tho’ different passions rage by turns”  is set to The Boatman, originally a song of reunion but now a song of farewell; Arnold confines the orchestra to strings for the sake of intimacy. In Act III Cawwawkee’s “Love with beauty is flying”  calls on the emotionality of “O Saw Ye My Father” to obliquely place Cawwawkee and Polly in the desired position of lovers; horns testify to expressions of friendship, and flutes doubling violins at the octave betoken expressions of love. Of particular interest is Polly’s “My heart forebodes he’s dead”  set to Eve’s presentiment of Abel’s death in Act III of Thomas Arne’s oratorio The Death of Abel (1744); the religiosity of this contemporary borrowing now serves as a metaphor for Polly’s “redemption” shortly to follow but since the music of Arne’s aria does not otherwise survive, we cannot judge how his orchestration may have compared to Arnold’s.
Arnold’s ability to orchestrate the borrowings from Pepusch’s vocal score is an attractive feature of Polly. In the Act I duet “How can you be so teazing” , for example, when Ducat begins wooing Polly, baying horns portray his lust, and in “The stag, when chas’d” ending Act I , a horn hunting-call relapsing into the released sound of flutes, not only illustrates the fleeing deer of the text but also marks the moment on stage when Polly escapes from chattel slavery. In “Honour calls me”  the weighted sound of oboes indicates the instant Morano tugs himself away from Jenny’s embrace, to fight, and (most memorably), in Polly’s sad song opening Act II , the bassoons combine with oboes to underline the solemnity. Arnold’s orchestrations never compete with the solo voice and tuttis are normally confined to ritornellos or bold accents—as in Culverin’s airs in Act II – and Morano’s graphic “When the tyger roams” in Act III ; the setting of Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary  receives a certain thrust when the full band enjoins coro
statements, and the impact makes a satisfying conclusion to the opera.
Arnold’s newly-composed music includes two solos for Polly in Act I which introduce her in the intimate rôle of broken-hearted lover. Particularly touching is the sighing melodic line of “She who hath felt a real pain”,  with flutes doubling violins at the octave to highlight peak phrases. With “Farewell, farewell, farewell, all hope of bliss!”  the emphasis changes from regret to despair and Polly’s arching vocal line is broken with rests, as if reflecting a catch in her throat. Strings, sparsely capped by horns, palpitate throughout; the horn octave sounding
at “Thy shaft still festers (in the wound)” bears weight to the words. Polly appears more positively in the splendid Act III hunting song “The sportsmen keep hawks”  but Arnold neatly embeds a sighing motif from her first solo at “the pheasant is slain” and this phrase is topped by flutes doubling voice and violins at the octave. Horns underline Jenny’s ardent mood in the duet “We never
blame the forward swain” , while oboes enter to mark the point of Polly’s almost feverish response; horns also penetrate Jenny’s words to Morano (“Jenny shall ne’er know pleasure again”) in their Act II duet . Morano’s defiant air in Act III (“The soldiers, who by trade must dare”) oscillates between a military march for full band and looping quaver motion (voice and strings), which represents the hangman’s noose; near the end, the vocal line gasps as if choking . Cawwawkee’s solo “The body
of the brave may be taken” shows him as a man of principle: sombre E minor, suggesting loss, slips significantly to G major, suggesting spiritual gain; the oboe solo doubling the vocal line at “’Tis a rock whose firm foundation” adds to Cawwawkee’s serenity and the
unexpected C chord at “day” (first time) momentarily evokes the warm glow of future glory.
Nor does Arnold miscalculate in his music for subsidiary figures, for example in Mrs Ducat’s “Abroad after misses” , when activated oboes and violins discharge indignation, or in Vanderbluff’s quasi-storm solo (“Woman’s like the flatt’ring ocean”) with its scuttering violins . Arnold’s medley overture  of tunes culled from The Beggar’s Opera, cunningly recovers the
heroine’s past (by recalling two of Polly’s songs in the middle section, for example, we come to a forbearing understanding of her difficulties), while the central suite-like dance of pirates (–), including two hornpipes) represents the crisis of the opera’s social and ideological
conflicts. The group of Indian dances – shows in the resolution a definite step towards reconciliation, for example the double-stopping opening the fifth dance, made to sound exotic, celebrates the quest for spiritual renewal in a savage wilderness. It is not difficult to locate
plot action to the dance music: the flourish of semiquavers in the final pirate dance, for example, seems to signal the capture of Cawwawkee, and the lyricism of the fourth Indian dance suggests this is likely the moment when Polly makes her vows to Cawwawkee.
Three items included on this disc, newly composed by Arnold, were cut before the first performance because Colman kept shortening Act III up to the very
last minute. He not only pulled an entire conversation between Ducat and the Indian chief Pohetohee, thereby ruling out two songs for Ducat –, but also the only duet between Polly and Cawwawkee, which was jettisoned because Colman wanted Morano’s extended number “The soldiers, who by trade must dare”  to feature at this point. Arnold provides a nice touch in the duet  by using the same sequential idea that opens the tune of Polly’s entrance song .