Saturday, 2 March 2013

Brecht Weill Die Dreigroschenoper Threepenny Opera

Kurt Weill's Die Dreigroschenoper  (Threepenny Opera)  is on at the Royal Festival Hall, part of a "Berlin weekend". How would Bertolt Brecht feel about the opera turned into consumer experience?  Brecht, I suspect would have loved the money. Despite his left-wing rhetoric, he was happy to profit through the work of others. Socialist words, capitalist actions? Read John Fuegi's The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht (1994).  Contradictions abound in The Threepenny Opera.  The opera can be presented as style icon for those who want the Weimar Experience as a fashion statement, rather in the way that "Vienna City of Dreams" marketing castrates Viennese culture. Capitalist consumer values contradict the very idea of class war. Ignore the issues in the opera. Publicize your street cred with the right T shirt or tea towel. "Capitalism consumes itself" as some might say. 

Brecht and Weill wanted to communicate with non-musical audiences, so in principle there's no reason why it shouldn't be adapted for different types of audiences. The Los Angeles Rise and Fall of Mahagonny made me cringe with its shallowness, but then shallowness is what the opera depicts. Delicious irony.  In Dreigroschenoper, appearances deceive. Seerabuer Jenny is a servant kicked about by customers in the "lumpige Hotel". But wait! "Ein Schiff mit acht Segeln iund mit funfzig Kannonen" will come and bomb the town. Who will die ? Jenny says, "Alles!"

Macheath is an enigma. He's a sleazeball who always manages to slip away uncaught. MacHeath oozes, like slime, his lines replicated in saxophone and slide trombone. A lounge lizard characterization is good, menace concealed by an air of impenetrable elusiveness. MacHeath gets by because he hunts in camouflage.  He is no comic book thug. He and Tiger Brown were comrades. Posh, but dangerous. The Shark bites!

Although Macheath is the hero/anti hero, the Street Singer holds the whole opera together. The role is not unlike tha tof the Circusmaster in Lulu. Almost certainly Berg knew Die Dreigroschenoper and saw the film made in 1931, directed by G W Pabst.  Berg and Brecht were both familiar with Wedekind. In both operas the menagerie holds humans, trapped by their position in life. Lulu herself, like Macheath, survives by being what others expect her to be. Neither opera is naturalistic, though Pabst's film uses naturalistic sets.

Ernst Busch sang the Street Singer in the 1928 production of Die Dreigroschenoper, and also in the Pabst film. A committed Communist, he didn't leave Europe and ended up a prisoner of the Nazis.  Busch and Hanns Eisler were comrades. Eisler made it to Hollywood, but wrote some of his finest work in exile, inspired by his experience of capiltalism in its most exuberant form. Weill, on the other hand, wrote musicals with vaguely political connections, but nothing like The Threepenny Opera. Eisler also challenged Brecht and tightened his political focus.  The result was Kuhle Wampe, worlds away from The Threepenny Opera. Read more about Kuhle Wampe here, with full download

Ernst Busch's performances are so remarkable that he has defined the role and indeed the opera. His voice growls  like a savage beast. Exaggerated "rrrr"s, done with defiant panache. "Messerrrrrr, besserrrrr" .The Street Singer has to sell for a living, so he purrrrrs to attract custiomers,while Macheath nicks their wallets. Or, should we say, adjusts the distribution of wealth?  Of course there can be commercialized, fashion icon Threepenny Operas, but for me, Dreigroschenoper needs to be as sharp as Mackie's knife. (see also my review of  the superlative and very original Deigroschenoper at the Barbican in 2009 HERE. "Bostridge trades fey for Kray". Surprisngly idiomatic cast. A pity that's not on CD


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