25 February 2007: Weill and Brecht, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

Opera Boston, Cutler Majestic Theatre. Libretto by Bertolt Brecht.

The second opera in Opera Boston’s three-opera season this year (La Clemenza di Tito, previously, with The Pearl Fishers to follow in May).

Three fugitives from justice stranded in a no man’s land somewhere in America decide they can survive by founding a city exclusively for pleasure. They do, with predictably dire results, finally, although the pleasure lasts a long, long time and becomes increasingly meaningless. There are a lot of people on stage, including high rollers and prostitutes, but there is little of what can be called a society; these people are all, fundamentally, loners. Accomplices in crime, mischief, and whoring, but no real friends. Thus, the soulless modern capitalistic society as depicted by Brecht, who is out to expose and condemn the “culinary” impulses in human beings by erecting a parallel excoriation of such impulses on stage before a theatre-loving audience, which is presented with this dry, unprofitable morality tale — at what are definitely not “down and out” prices.

So we have to take the premise of the opera on theatrical faith, as it were, and do our best to enjoy the music and the spirited, highly musical efforts of a fine cast singing some really difficult music. I have the sneaking suspicion that Weill went to school to Schoenberg, with mixed results. Serious music critics looked down their noses at “Moon over Alabama” (pronounced “Alabahma”; a good sing­ing coach would never let you say “Alabaama”), but it is one of the few pieces that can count as a sort of aria. There is a lot of repetition, musically speak­ing, and a concerted effort to mimic in the music the differential intervals of human speech. What seems fortunate, finally, is the fact that Weill was not a com­­plete convert to Brechtian social analysis; he loved cabaret music and was a master of adopting it to a socially exotic situation. Witness the brilliant music of The Threepenny Opera. (I have a recording of it in the original German, with Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya singing the lead female role, and it is stunningly good.)

What happens in this opera is that in Act III Jimmy McIntyre is condemned to death for what is the cardinal crime in Mahagonny: having no money. This is Brecht at his most sardonic. Suddenly the opera comes alive, both musically and dramatically, and the interest on both counts stays high and well sustained to the end.

One of the critics of the Opera Boston production said that the stage setting looks like the rear or service end of a Walmart’s; correctly observed. Upstage is a wide loading bay with a sliding accordion-fold door of metal; nearby, a few dump­­sters; and very little else. For a city of pleasure, this is unrelieved starkness and gloom. So the stage setting itself tells the story of the opera in advance. The costumes were very good but a bit predictable as an ensemble. We’ve seen the slit skirts and V-neck blouses and net stockings before, but this is the idiom: “Early DeMille Stripper,” so to speak. And “Respectable Gangster” for the men.

The opera is enjoying something of a boom. Two or three other productions in the recent past, in San Francisco (I think), Santa Fe, and so on (scheduled for Spoleto this summer). I’m not sure what the impetus is behind this popularity. Certainly the addition of this opera to a company’s season adds some spice and variety, but musically speaking it is not memorable, and the less than perfect compatibility of composer and librettist adds what can only be described as a salutary tension. Having seen and heard a creditable production, I don’t need to do so again.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book