Thursday 2 April 2015

A fascinating, yet flawed work - Brecht and Weill's Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny

Christine Rice as Jenny and Willard W. White as Trinity Moses in Fall of the City of Mahagonny © ROH.Clive Barda 2015
Christine Rice and Willard W. White in
Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
© ROH.Clive Barda 2015
Brecht and Weill, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny); Von Otter, Hoare, White, Rice, Streit, dir: Fulljames, cond: Wigglesworth; Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 1 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Strong performance of Weill and Brecht's flawed yet fascinating full-length opera

Last night (1 April 2015) we caught up with the Covent Garden's new (and first) production of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's only three-act opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) in the production directed by John Fulljames, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth with Anne Sofie von Otter as Begbick, Peter Hoare as Fatty, Willard W. White as Trinity Moses, Christine Rice as Jenny, Kurt Streit as Jimmy McIntyre, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Jack O'Brien, Darren Jeffery as Bank Account Bill, Neal Davies as Alaska Wolf Joe, with Anna Burford, Lauren Fagan, Anush Hovhannisyan, Stephanie Marshall, Meeta Raval, Harriet Williams, Robert Clark, Hubert Francis and Paterson Joseph. Set designs were by Es Devlin, with costumes by Christina Cunningham, lighting by Bruno Poet, video by Finn Ross and choreography by Arthur Pita.

Willard W. White as Trinity Moses, Anne Sofie Von Otter as Leocadia Begbick and Peter Hoare as Fatty in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny © ROH.Clive Barda 2015
Peter Hoare, Anne Sofie Von Otter and Willard W. White
© ROH.Clive Barda 2015
Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny comes at an interesting and important juncture in the development of Weill and Brecht's collaboration. In 1927 they produced the Mahagonny Songspiel, a sequence of songs with linking instrumental (intended for performance by opera singers) which after one performance they decided to work into a full scale opera. During the planning of Mahagonny they were approached about a version of The Beggars Opera and the success of the result, Der Dreigroschenoper, came in the middle of the work for Mahagonny meaning that its development was somewhat waylaid by the music theatre piece.

Mahagonny is understood to be a transition piece in the work of Bertolt Brecht as he came to more of an understanding of Communism during the development of the work. In fact he produced a third version of the libretto which he published, which was far more aligned to his Marxist principals and helped to create the breach with Weill. But it is also a transition work for Weill as it comes at the time when he is experimenting with forms of musical theatre, ranging from full blown opera, through one-act opera to musical theatre and plays with music. It would be followed by the lehrstuck with Brecht and the collaboration with playwright Georg Kaiser, Der Silbersee which is neither play nor quite music theatre and needs both real actors and real singers.  It was the music-theatre works which came to prominence, partly because Weill's fleeing from Germany in 1933 put paid to any more large scale operatic works and any more experimenting but listening to the full version of Mahagonny certainly leaves you full of what ifs.

 Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny © ROH.Clive Barda 2015
Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny © ROH.Clive Barda 2015
Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny has the music-theatre-ish songs of the Mahagonny Songspiel folded into a more serious texture which shows the Kurt Weill of the Second Symphony, the composer who had studied with Ferrucio Busoni. And an important thing about the work was that it was intended as an operatic work. The singers at the premiere were all opera singers. A revised version was produced in Berlin with Lotte Lenya as Jenny only because, in the edgy political climate following the Nazi Party's rise to power, no opera house would perform it. The post-war version recorded by Lenya in the 1950's, with Jenny very much as a singing actress, was created purely out of necessity as Lenya knew that if she didn't perform the work, no-one else was going to. (Also bear in mind that the post-war Lenya was a chanteuse with a voice in the low contralto range, whilst the pre-war Lenya had been a soubrette soprano!).

The Royal Opera's cast for the production was all opera singers, all with a strong dramatic bent. And the music performance under Mark Wigglesworth was, for me, near ideal.  This was harnessed to a production by James Fulljames which mined the modernity of the work's political message. One of the fascinating things about Mahagonny is the lack of real performance tradition, so everyone is free to invent their own. The problem with the work is that performers frequently use this very freedom to move the work far closer to the music theatre pieces with which Weill is identified. But this is to falsify the original.

Kurt Streit as Jimmy Macintyre and Christine Rice as Jenny in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny © ROH.Clive Barda 2015
Kurt Streit and Christine Rice as Jenny
© ROH.Clive Barda 2015
Fulljames and his designers, Devlin and Cunningham, used the image of Begbick, Fatty and Trinity Moses shipping people to the new city in shipping containers as the defining motif for the production. From the start, the trio's motives were dubious and their methods corrupt and the shipping container became the defining visual image. During act one a single container expanded to two and was used as the main podium and stage for the piece, creating a stage within a stage. Then in acts two and three, the whole stage was full of them, in tiers, with the upper level forming a platform for the original trio to watch and control the proceedings in their city. The advantage of such structures, was that the sides of the containers could be used for the projections from Finn Ross's imaginative and atmospheric videos and images.

Von Otter was nicely malign as Begbick sporting a wonderful East End accent (the work was sung in Jeremy Sams translation), and she was well supported by Peter Hoare as Fatty and Williard W. White as Trinity Moses. So that the three did form the eminences grises of the production. Jenny gets all the best numbers (the ones from Mahagonny Songpiel) and the role was beautifully sung by Christine Rice, aligned to some neat moves and a great deal of vamping, supported by the girls of Anna Burford, Lauren Fagan, Anush Hovhannisyan, Stephanie Marshall, Meeta Raval, Harriet Williams.

Kurt Streit as Jimmy Macintyre, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Jack O’Brien, Darren Jeffery as Bank Account Bill and Neal Davies as Alaska Wolf Joe in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny © ROH.Clive Barda 2015
Kurt Streit  Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Darren Jeffery and Neal Davies
© ROH.Clive Barda 2015
Though introduced later, it is Jimmy (personified here by Kurt Streit) who becomes the tragic hero of this cautionary tale. Streit delivered a finely sung performance, well supported by the other miners, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Jack who eats himself to death, Neal Davies as Joe the wimp who is killed in a fight with Willard W White's ex-prize fighter, and Darren Jeffery's Bill.

For Jimmy's demise, Fulljames  introduced quite a lot of Christian iconography that would have been alien to Brecht but here I think that Fulljames was responding to an essential problem of the work. Mahagonny comes from a particular time and place; without the rise of the Nazis it would probably be regarded as an interesting transition work only. Performing it today, it is difficult to give the piece the same bite; Brecht's satire lacks edge and Weill's music is easily encompassed by opera singers in a way that was probably not true at the premiere. To make it work, we need to give it teeth. At Covent Garden, it would have probably helped if it had been performed in the Linbury Theatre (at least the dialogue would not have had to be miked). But in the larger main auditorium, all Fulljames, Wigglesworth and their ensemble could do was give the original operatic version of the piece their best shot. And this they did indeed.

I think it was probably a mistake to do the piece in Jeremy Sams' English translation, partly because Sams' words were simply too nice and partly because the original German does indeed have so much bite.

I have not yet come across my ideal performance Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny and no performance has yet quite convinced me that it would not be better to perform the Mahagonny Songspiel which is short yet packs more punch. At Covent Garden they came pretty close. The highly episodic act one did rather drag, but the second half had far more dramatic impetus and I will certainly treasure Christine Rice's performance.

The performance we attended coincided with the power-cut because of the fire in Holborn Kingsway. Admirably, with power from two grids coming into the building, the Royal Opera was able to continue though the front of house facilities were limited and lighting was all temporary. But the house functioned as it should and there was great credit to the Covent Garden front of house staff for bringing it off so brilliantly.

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