Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Ground-breaking The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny Royal Opera House

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny at the Royal Opera Hall absolutely breaks new ground, revealing the sophisticated layers of meaning inherent in the opera. Yes, it's political, yes it's about capitalism, consumerism, greed, materialism and false values and the way such things wreak havoc, like the typhoon that flattens Benares. Why Benares, the "Holy City",and not wicked Mahagonny ?

For the first time I realized this had deeper meaning than simply irony.  In a world where "you choose to kick or be kicked", Jenny Smith chickens out and kicks Jimmy McIntyre. Yet he bears no resentment. When Kurt Streit sang Jimmy's death cell soliloquy,  I thought of Billy Budd, redeemed because he dies without rancour.. Some will scream in rage at the execution, where Jimmy hangs as if crucified, but it's  a perfectly valid reading of the score. Brecht and Weill lived in a supposedly Christian society which didn't practice the principal tenets of the faith. Three years after the opera was completed, Weimar descended into the Third Reich. Untrammeled excess and its counterpart of evil. It's not for nothing Weill writes hymn-like tunes into the music. The people of Mahagonny worship Mammon. It's also not for nothing that the three founders of the city pull the strings. As the man behind me perceptively said "The un-Holy Trinity", one of whom is actually called Trinity Moses, a dig at other religions, too.  This Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is not only true to Brecht and Weill but confronts the very evil that makes societies corrupt. Far more danderous than just another parable about greed.

The un-Holy Trinity jump out of a truck, itself a metaphor for consumerism, a machine that keeps moving but that's hollow and can be filled by anything, including fugitives.   The truck is in Brecht's original libretto but lends itself to modern imagery. The backdrop of multi-coloured boxes looks like a container park. Think Sangatte, in Calais, where illegal immigrants hide, smuggling themselves into trucks in the hope of a better life. Wetbacks have usually paid bribes to escape, and often end up worse than whence they came. So Jimmy and his friends from Alaska arrive in Mahagonny with briefcases as shiny as their dreams.

This production also makes far more of Alaska than usual, and for good reason. Alaska stands for pure, unspoiled Nature, where hardship leads to rewards, not only in terms of money but in terms of the true riches of friendship. Sparkly objects flutter down from the ROH ceiling: images of fool's gold, snowfall, and the cleansing nature of the typhoon rainstorm.  We see glimpses of Alaska in the background, pristine in black and white, in contrast the feverish, unnatural neon of Mahagonny, where night and day merge in a drunken haze.There's plenty of colour in Mahagonny.  This set can be a visual feast for the eyes, but, like gluttony, this feast is poisoned. The men watch the girls dance  in a box lit in lurid hues, with fake palm trees and a Liberace pianist who "tickles the ivories" rather than plays. It's all a con to separate men from their money. The woman make money, but pay an even more savage price, invisibly. But all that matters to the crowd is delusion. "Ah ! that's what I call Eternal Art".Unfortunately, some audiences prefer tack to real art.

In Mahagonny, even the Seven Deadly Sins are shortchanged. Like crap commercial advertising, the guiding principles are reduced to four, gluttony, lust, fighting and alcoholic stupor, each neatly vignetted. A particularly vivid Fatty from Peter Hoare in a fat suit. Alaska Wolf Joe is a comically puny-looking  Neal Davies. His moment doesn't last long. He's wiped out in seconds by Trinity Moses (Willard White), who wields a big red punching glove. The game is rigged. Besides, the real fight is not fisticuffs, but the Trial, equally rigged. Killing people is a lesser crime than not paying for three bottles of whiskey. And so Jimmy must die.

This production, directed by John Fulljames and his team, Es Devlin, Christina Cunningham, Bruno Poet , Finn Ross and Arthur Pita, operates on so many different levels., and so radically that it puts to shame the appallingly superficial Los Angeles production which seems to treat the opera as some kind of LA in-joke.  The La Fura dels Baus production, from Madrid five years ago, at least had an edge, and is definitely the better choice. Calixto Bieito, with his political acuiity, could do something really disturbing.  But for ROH audiences, John Fulljames delivers an intelligent interpretation which shows genuine understanding of Brecht and  Weill and their insistence that opera should deal with real issues even though the setting is fantasy.  This is a Rise and fall of Mahagonny which anyone seriously interested in Brecht and Weill could learn a lot from.

Musically, though, this was a bumpy ride.  Mark Wigglesworth's conducting veered from very good to less clearly defined. Weill uses a variety of genres to illustrate the universal relevance of the story, just as Brecht mixes Mahagonny with Benares, Alabama and Havana, Katmandu and Pensacola.

Anne Sofie von Otter has long specialized in singing cabaret, as well as classical, and her Weill songs are highly regarded.  Deservedly, she landed the part of Leocadia, Widow Begbick. She does the spikey, spider-like body language perfectly. But like Leocadia, her voice isn't what it used to be. Sometimes she sings extremely well, getting the slime in the legato. She saved her best work for the ending when the character's venality is at last revealed.  Willard White has been singing Trinity Moses probably more than anyone else in the business now, but his voice,too, is a shadow of what it once was. Neither Brecht nor Weill were bothered about showpiece singing, so it doesn't matter all that much. Suffice that we were  again able to hear and see von Otter and White and respect them for what they could do.

Kurt Streit's Jimmy varied, too, but for good reason. He was superb in his transcendent last soliloquy, rather less forceful earlier on. Yet that, too, is part of Jimmy's personality. He seems like a wimp at first but reveals his true colours when everything's against him. It's not the butch who are strong, but the meek.  I was also impressed with Christine Rice, normally a bit too upper class to be playing a whore. Yet her froideur worked extremely well for Jenny, who does sex for a living, not for pleasure. She could save Jimmy, but like Judas Iscariot, betrays him in his hour of need.

Darren Jeffery sang Bank Account Bill, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts sang Jack O'Brien, Robert Clark was the piano player, Hubert Francis was Toby, and the booming voiceover was Paterson Joseph. The Girls were Anna Burford, Lauren Fagan, Anush Hovhannisyan, Stephanie Marshall, Meeta Raval and Harriet Williams.

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