Sunday, 15 March 2015

A rare piece of early Brecht and Weill

Trinity Moses, Widow Begbick & Fatty (Peter Hoare)
Like the proverbial London bus, it seems that you wait ages to visit the Royal Opera House and then, once you’ve done it for the first time, another visit speeds into view in a matter of weeks.

If I was the prime mover behind the desire to see some Wagner in mid-February, then The Other Half was probably ahead of me in wanting to ensure we didn’t miss a new production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Brecht and Weill.
Given that Brecht declared of Mahagonny that it was an written in an attempt to “pay conscious tribute to the senselessness of the operatic form,” there’s a certain piquancy to rare chances to see it being more likely to be in opera houses than in theatres, but whatever ones opinion. it has become an accepted part of the opera canon.
However, as an early piece – first performed in 1930 – it is fraught with difficulties for any company.
Unlike in later works, Brecht was here still developing his worldview, and Mahagonny offers an unrelentingly misanthropic and dystopian perspective, with nothing – even right at the end – to suggest that we might have a chance to stop the insane drive to self-destruction.
One also has the sense that, when writing this, Brecht was still a small-town boy feeling ill-at-ease in the big city – it isn't simply a rant against capitalism per se.
Jenny (centre)
Three on-the-run criminals – Widow Begbick, Fatty and Trinity Moses – find their vehicle broken down in Amerika, and decide that, since they can go neither forward nor back, they will found a city based on nothing but pleasure, and that city will be called Mahagonny (Brecht’s nickname for Munich – this is not simply an onslaught against the ‘American Dream’).
It’s a place for (male) workers who are exhausted, and offers booze, fighting and sex.
When the first group of prostitutes arrive, we hear one, Jenny – a role first created by the legendary Lotte Lenya – sing the work’s most iconic number, the Alabama Song.
However, trouble starts, when lumberjacks Jimmy McIntyre, Jack O’Brien, Bank-Account Bill and Alaska Wolf Joe arrive from Alaska and, when Jimmy defies an impending hurricane, his own even more anarchic ideology wins approval.
But even in Mahagonny, rules are required and, when Jimmy cannot pay for a round of drinks, he’s arrested, tried and – as he has no money left to bribe the court – executed.
This current production is in English, with a new translation by Jeremy Sams, but this was never a straightforwardly German libretto anyway: Alabama Song is one of two songs that were written in English originally.
It is certainly flawed – the third act is paced far too slowly and reduces the possibility of any real punch at the end.
But there are some very interesting aspects to it – not least the opportunity to see such an early work. The staging is wonderful, as the new city starts from a single lorry and, at the start of the second act, we see a container city rise up.
Jimmy McIntyre (centre)
There’s plenty to maintain interest and plenty to consider, up to an including working your way through Brecht’s philosophical jumble.
There’s a big question as to whether Weill’s works with Brecht should be sung by opera singers or non-opera singers, but that’s generally subjective. My Other Half – a serious Brecht buff – and I had differing responses, but while he was, in general, more critical of the overall production than I, he still considered it a very worthwhile evening out and with plenty of points of interest to spark subsequent conversation.
As it happened, we saw this three weeks after seeing Der fliegende Holländer at the ROH. It made for some intriguing contrasts and connections. Not least in that Wagner never regarded many of his works as ‘operas’ but as ‘music dramas’. It was a serious point for him.
And it’s a description that can probably fairly be applied to Brecht and Weill’s works together. While in general, Wagner’s own choice of terminology has been quietly forgotten and his works widely accepted as part of Opera, it is easy to see why people still feel uncomfortable, if you will, with knowing how to describe and site works such as this, since they don’t fit comfortably into most established cultural pigeon holes.
Mahogany is not, strictly, ‘opera’, but neither is it a ‘musical’ or a ‘play’ or a ‘cabaret’ or any other performance type that you can think of. ‘Music drama’ – Wagner’s term – seems entirely the best fit.
At the end of the interval, two other members of the audience behind me were discussing why it was being staged at the ROH, with one wondering whether it was a “cash cow”: it remains to be seen when Brecht (and Weill) has ever been a “cash cow” in the UK. And if you wanted to go down that route, using Brecht, your best bet would be Die Dreigroschenoper, not this.

So, to the cast.

Container city
It was a joy to see Sir Willard White as Trinity Moses, while Anne Sofie von Otter as Begbick really grew into the role as the evening went on.

Christine Rice gave a strong account as Jenny – beautiful singing on the Alabama Song – while Kurt Streit as Jimmy was, for me, also very strong.

There, are nods to all sorts of things all over the place – including to Nietzsche, in terms of the citizens of Mahagonny killing God – and to Wagner, whose ‘motif of longing’ from Tristan und Isolde is quoted in the opening sequence of the work.

I think that John Fulljames has done a generally good job with a difficult piece, while, as mentioned earlier, the set design of Es Devlins really gave me another look at opera as spectacle – and I have so appreciated that in the last month.

The use of projection works really well here – and it does also make you aware that Brecht, as someone who used surtitles to further stamp home what he was saying, was arguably a leader in terms of multi-media theatrical performances.

But if this is cannot offer a perfect production of an imperfect work, then it still a very good opportunity to see a rarely-performed piece by Brecht and Weill and a production that has a great deal to enjoy and admire, and will certainly provide plenty of food for later conversation, as The Other Half and I found.

Photos: Clive Barda for the Royal Opera House

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