Yes, Mahagonny, written in the late twenties and premiered in 1930, feels as if it could have been written yesterday, in certain ways. But that is not because of the hurricane, even though there was one. It's because of the corruption, the moral vacuity, the drunkenness, the greed, the selfishness, the falsity. Focusing on climate change, which is specific to our times, but was not to the late 1920s, at the expense of these other qualities, specific to all times, is only the first of many problems I had with the production and the performance. (Reviews so far have been mixed, but I don't seem to have seen the same show as any of them.)
|The trial scene, including Anne Sofie von Otter as Widow Begbick (centre) |
and Kurt Streit as Jimmy (right, on the box).
(c) ROH, photo by Clive Barda
The production has one desperately powerful and chilling concept. It is built - by Es Devlin's inspired design - around shipping containers, which double as brightly coloured houses rising as far as the eye can see. But when you see a shipping container, what do you think of? Personally, I can't help associating them with people being smuggled and suffocated therein. Early on in this opera, a chorus of men in grey suits and hats - implicitly western city workers - are herded into a container to be taken to Mahagonny. The staging, with its climate change warning, points to our own likely dystopia: we will all have to flee our cities and find somewhere new to go, because, as Brecht puts it, translated by Jeremy Sams, we don't need hurricanes, "we're spoiling the world just fine."
Brecht does like to bash us over the head with his messages, though. He can never simply put a fable in front of us and let us draw our own conclusions. A good red pen wouldn't have gone amiss from time to time. The four lumberjacks from Alaska who are destroyed by the place, one by one - except for Billy - recap their words about the terrible winters and the great pine trees they felled so often that a gentle excision or two wouldn't have hurt - except that I suspect Brecht would have given you a black eye if you'd tried.
Another problem, though, for which we can't entirely blame Brecht & Weill: strophic songs are awkward on an opera stage. This stage especially. The set takes up most of the space, so the action is confined principally to the very front. When it acquires more than two dimensions, it goes upwards into split levels. Perhaps that solves part of the intimacy problem - it's a large house for not a large troupe and a piece in which words are all-important - but there's less room to play with and the fable-like nature of the story perhaps invites a more symbolic, static approach than a naturalistic scenario might. But in short, there's not enough going on in the strophic songs. Yes, we need to focus on the words - but we need a little more action, too, or the pace can really sag, and it does.
In similar fashion, many of the cast are under-characterised. These individuals are archetypes, of course, but they need to come to convincing life. Only our hero, Jimmy McIntyre - sung magnificently by Kurt Streit - assumes a measure of actual personality. Even Christine Rice, in fabulous voice as Jenny the prostitute, could give the role more nuance; when she refuses to help Jimmy, who loves her, it should probably come as a sickening shock, but doesn't. Then there's Anne Sofie von Otter as Widow Begbick - one wants to admire her, given that she is a magnificent artist and one of today's very great singers, but this role needs an overwhelming presence, a true battle-axe personality, and neither she nor her direction - which turns her into a dip-dye-pink-haired Estuary type - provides enough of that essential force. (Have a look at the extracts on Youtube of Patti LuPone in the role in the US). Sir Willard White is a brilliant Trinity Moses; one wants more of him. Peter Hoare as Fatty does not have much to do either, but his very presence, standing still and smoking, carries a fabulous weight of imagery. The singing is often operatically beautiful, especially from Streit and Rice - and according to Jeremy Sams, whom I interviewed for my article last week, so it should be. Full marks to orchestra, chorus and Mark Wigglesworth on the podium.
For me, the message of Mahagonny is not about what Brecht puts on stage, but what he doesn't. If this society is eating itself away through ennui and self-destructiveness, feeling something's missing, why? What is it that is missing? Try these:
No families. The only women on stage are prostitutes and the Widow Begbick. No children. No older people. The men can have sex, but apparently only with women who are doing it for money.
No art. The populace possesses nothing creative, nothing expressive.
No sport or fitness or teamwork. They do have bare-knuckle boxing, which is singular and kills its combatant.
No community. Every man (and it's mostly men - but it's true of Jenny too) for himself.
Nothing for people to do except indulge their basest appetites well beyond their hearts' desires. No orchestras or painting classes, that's for sure.
Nothing to encourage any actual sense of humanity or kindness or relationship.
Only money, appetite and self-interest have any value here. There is one grim reference to religion, right at the end. Brecht bashes us on the head with it, and so does Fulljames, turning Jimmy's execution into a scene reminiscent of the Crucifixion.
Some of this is also why the updating doesn't quite work. The nature of the piece is much of its own day; there isn't space within it to turn it into a convincing picture of our own times and the make-up of our society. Filmed images of the front of the ROH and the blown-up bus in Russell Square 2005 do little to help.
Inside us all there is, perhaps inevitably, a personal opera-director who pipes up: "I want to see it like this instead..." My mini-me would like to see it set...
...in Germany, in 1930. Performed as it might have been then (and in German - I liked the translation and can see why it perhaps needs to be done in translation, but I'd rather hear it in German anyway). I would set it as a play within a play, amid the society it would have been in; people impoverished, desperate, surrounded by the rise of fascism, with the work's message bowling out loud and clear and horrific. "Nothing can be done to help the living," goes the final chorus, sending us out thoroughly depressed. Brecht and Weill don't leave 'em laughing. No redemption here. Imagine that message in Germany three years before Hitler took power.
'Nuff said. Shudder. I'm off to comb my cats.