Kurt Weill - Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
Royal Opera House, 2015
Mark Wigglesworth, John Fulljames, Anne Sofie von Otter, Peter Hoare, Willard W. White, Christine Rice, Kurt Streit, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Darren Jeffery, Neal Davies, Hubert Francis
Royal Opera House, Cinema Live - 1 April 2015
What is both clever and great about Weill and Brecht's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is that as long as we live in a society that is centred around capitalism and commerce, it's message is always going to be pertinent and relevant. Inevitably there's much made of how the message of the work reflects our own current economic downturn, but even if we lived in boom times, the opera would still show fairly accurately the kind of 'Wolf of Wall Street' excess and vulgarity, the moral and social breakdown that inevitably follows when the acquisition of obscene amounts of money it seen as an end in itself. There's not much to be said for capitalism, is there?
As well as being clever (and true), this is however part of the problem with the work as it stands as an opera. It's rather preachy. Its parable of the building of a city by three criminals whose founding principles are based on nothing more than exploiting its transient citizens for every penny they can get out of them (no money left, you'll feel the full weight of the law - immigrants welcome, as long as you have something (money, cheap labour) to contribute) is more of a concept than a plot, and it lacks genuine engagement. It's true that Bertolt Brecht was more interested in gaining the intellectual participation of the audience than their emotional engagement or identification with the characters, but for the work to succeed on the opera stage today, it needs a little more of a bite to shake a modern audience out of its complacency.
Perhaps Brecht didn't anticipate, considering its evident failings as a model for social well-being and despite its superficial allure, that Capitalism could possibly turn out to be so pervasive as to be endorsed as a sine qua non, but then, it's clear from this work that he doesn't have too much faith in human nature being motivated by anything other than naked greed and self-interest. Nonetheless, the Royal Opera House production of Mahagonny does feel complacent. Not in terms of professionalism or performance - everything is well considered here - but it is a production that is designed for the opera stage for a Covent Garden audience, and it consequently fails to invite anything but a complacent shrug of recognition. 'That's so true', you think, 'but not much you can do to change it'.
For a regular opera, you don't really expect much more of a response than that, but Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is not a regular opera and, consequently that's really not good enough. It's not entirely the fault of John Fulljames's direction for the Royal Opera House, but inherently a problem with the work itself. It's not the anti-opera that it sets out to be, but rather does end up preaching to a well-heeled audience that is not really going to consider its wealth vulgar, or have to worry that it will all disappear on binges of whoring and drinking. Weill might be partly to blame for how the musical language speaks and soothes away any unwelcome recognition, its jazz-influenced rhythms no longer as daring as they might once have been, but Brecht's heavy-handed mocking of capitalist society doesn't invite any real engagement or suggest alternatives either.
A stage director, set designer and a musical director willing to really engage with the message could however make more of a difference here. The problem with John Fulljames, Es Devlin and Mark Wigglesworth's interpretation is that it is resolutely opera house. They do justice to the letter of the work as it was written, and give every indication of the relevance of its intentions, but they don't find a way to update the nihilistic 1930's spirit of the opera in a way that would invite a modern audience to put aside their opera preconceptions. The La Fura dels Baus production at the Teatro Real, by way of comparison, managed to be a little more adventurous and inventive with the work, and conductor there, Pablo Heras Casado, managed to get more of the genuine swagger and swing of the orchestration. The production team at the Royal Opera House, on the other hand, don't really treat Weill and Brecht's work differently from the way they would approach any other opera commission.
Es Devlin's set designs are, it has to be said, inventive and very much find a modern way to envision the themes of the work - even if it tripped up the performers on one or two occasions. The city of Mahagonny comes literally from the back of a lorry, neatly compartmentalising the scenes in the first act, while the second and third acts add shipping containers to the construction. There are no niceties here, it's a city that has evolved out of the practicalities of delivering commercial products and services. That's as much a reflection of the abstraction of Brecht's alienation devices, inviting audiences to consider the "idea" of a city rather the concrete reality of a realistic set. We're now familiar with this kind of set design now however, and just as much depends on what you do within in. Unfortunately, John Fulljames doesn't find any original way of making consumption in this permissive society anything more than it is on the page. When you have actually seen worse in reality on the streets of modern metropolises, it's fairly tame stuff indeed.
So, instead of engaging with the ideas, there's not much else for the critic to review here other than the old fall-back of how good the singing performances are - as if Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is just another work to be assessed in that peculiar view of opera as little more than a perpetual singing contest. Christine Rice was the probably the strongest voice here as Jenny, giving a great rendition of the famous Alabama Song, but for me she was much too plummy and operatic for the down-and-dirty role. Kurt Streit was best with character, but his singing was also strong, bright and lyrical, capturing the wild abandon of Jimmy McIntyre. If character realism is important here, and it's debatable, it would then colour your view of Anne Sofie von Otter's over-acted Widow Begbick, but it was an enjoyable characterisation, even if it apparent that her voice is no longer strong enough to carry the sung-recitative sections. Willard White's voice isn't as strong as it once was either but Trinity Jones is a familiar role for him, and he can still do it well.
This was a good performance then and highly entertaining, as professional as you would expect from the Royal Opera House, but something was still missing. Being aware of the content from a synopsis isn't usually an issue with opera - you can usually expect an infinite amount of variety in interpretation - but here, having laid it out beforehand in the pre-screening and interval features, it all played out a little too routinely and complacently. One thing Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny should never be is routine and complacent, but whether that's a problem with the Royal Opera House's production or the world itself worryingly becoming a parody of capitalism that outstrips anything in Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's opera, one would like to think you'd get more out of this work than just a nice evening at the opera.
Links: The Royal Opera House