Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill - The Threepenny Opera
Northern Ireland Opera, Lyric Theatre - 2018
Sinead Hayes, Walter Sutcliffe, Kerri Quinn, Matthew Cavan, Orla Mullan, Tommy Wallace, Jolene O'Hara, Paul Garrett, Richard Croxford, Jayne Wisener, Brigid Shine, Maeve Smyth, Mark Dugdale, Steven Page, Gerard McCabe
Lyric Theatre, Belfast - 30 January 2018
An opera that isn't really an opera is an interesting choice for the directorial debut of Northern Ireland Opera's new Artistic Director, Walter Sutcliffe. His predecessor, Oliver Mears however opened his tenure in a similarly non-traditional and low-key fashion with Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium - also in a theatre rather than the opera house - the indication being possibly that opera has much more to offer than La Traviata and Madama Butterfly, and that it can and should be accessible to everyone. Indeed Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's street-theatre piece The Threepenny Opera has precisely the same ideal of breaking down traditional barriers, and if anything that's the real beauty of the work, and not a bad statement of intent either if you want to see it that way.
Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera is just one in a long tradition of works that have brought a taboo-breaking common touch to opera. The Threepenny Opera was modelled on John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), putting a glamorous criminal 'Mack the Knife' and the low-life of society at the heart of an opera, filling it with popular accessible music and bawdy scenes. If you want, you can go right back to Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea for similar daring shifts in the subject of opera to appeal to a wider audience, and you could take it right up to Thomas Adès's scandalous Powder her Face, a work which indeed has also recently made its mark in Belfast at the Lyric Theatre in an NI Opera production. In that respect, Walter Sutcliffe's production of The Threepenny Opera continues a tradition of exposing audiences to opera that challenges and entertains.
It's difficult then to judge a production of The Threepenny Opera by traditional standards. It has to be judged on its own terms, and perhaps its aims - to challenge and entertain - aren't so different from those presented to its original audience in Berlin in 1928. Leaving aside whether it really meets the criteria of opera - where boundaries are flexible and are still being pushed forward in works like Evan Gardner's Gunfighter Nation, where the musicians are also the dramatic and singing performers - the basic principle of putting on a show with musical numbers that tells a story is there in place in The Threepenny Opera, and it can be used as a means of expressing or exposing social attitudes or issues in the world today. Some things - money, greed, criminality, corruption - never change or go out of fashion, it seems.
Walter Sutcliffe makes perhaps only a token effort at any contemporary political or local social reference, but the nature and structure of the work itself with its Brechtian theatre innovations can be the best vehicle for making us think about what The Threepenny Opera tells us about the world today; ie. there's a lot of theatre involved. The focus then is rightly about making this an engaging piece of musical theatre with grotesque exaggerated characters, bold sets, colourful costumes, colourful language too and swinging musical numbers that, thanks to it becoming a swing standard over the years, even has an instantly recognisable bona-fide classic hit in its repertoire, the wonderful 'Mack the Knife'. If that doesn't draw you straight into The Threepenny Opera, nothing will.
There were perhaps just a little bit of self-consciousness and nerves early in the preview shows of the NI Opera production at the Lyric Theatre, but then director Walter Sutcliffe doesn't make it easy for the cast by making practically the entire stage a steep cabaret staircase with narrow steps for them to teeter down on heels while singing the famous opening number. Dorota Karolczak's sets and costumes however are entirely appropriate, telling us - as if it isn't already apparent from the garish costumes, heavy make-up and colourful wigs - that this is purely a theatrical confection; don't be expecting any hard-hitting social realism here. This is a show, and we're here to entertain you.
And although it might take a little while to warm to the exaggerated and unfamiliar form of 1920s German jazz-cabaret theatre, entertain it does. By the time we get to the conclusion, we've been caught up in the sordid little dealings and womanising polygamy of 'Mack the Knife' Macheath, the money-making exploitation of the poor beggars by Jonathan Peachum, the mistreatment of the Wapping prostitute Jenny Diver and her girls, the bribery and corruption of police superintendent Jackie 'Tiger' Brown and his officers, and even the compicity of the church is called out in Reverend Kimball's blessing of the union of Mack and Polly Peachum. There's plenty there played out in broad strokes to entertain, and if it no longer shocks in the same way, it's at least a shock that such goings-on are now nothing more than we've come to expect from celebrities, politicians and the establishment.
Other than the inclusion of the local vernacular, Sutcliffe is probably wise not to draw any obvious comparisons to current affairs and political events in the world today, in this particular work anyway. There's only one overt contemporary reference where the famous image of Syrian refugees marching into Europe is displayed. It's a reminder, in the spirit of the original, that even behind the fiction and glamour the dealings of this little group of individuals relies on the exploitation of the less fortunate masses whose fate is casually ignored. Mack being saved from the gallows at the final moment may be a moment of Brechtian theatre drawing attention to the artificiality of dramatic narrative, but in its own way it also points to the truth that those with power, money and influence write their own story and, unlike the people whose lives they destroy, they tend to come out of such scandals relatively unscathed.
Judging it by the casting alone, which is made up more of actors more familiarly seen on the Lyric stage than the Grand Opera House, The Threepenny Opera is more musical-theatre than opera in the traditional sense. That doesn't mean however that the standards that need to be met aren't just as high, nor that they weren't indeed met. Even if there's a measure of musical-theatre belting it out, there were some very impressive singing performances. Jayne Wisener's Polly Peachum has a light voice, but it's sung in a way that was a perfect match for her character's delightfully ambiguous moral outlook, her calculated ruthlessness and casual indifference to all manner of criminal activity and moral depravity masked by a disarming sweetness. Brigid Shine's Lucy Brown showed an impressive range and control in her singing, again matching the feistiness of her character. Mark Dugdale has plenty of experience in music theatre and carried the role of Mack with a confident swagger and charm. Where caricature and exaggerated counted more than singing ability, Matthew 'Cherrie Ontop' Cavan's Mrs Peachum and Richard Croxford's scouse Jackie Brown all delivered wonderfully entertaining performances, and in baritone Steven Page's Jonathan Peachum you had the best of both disciplines.
Behind all the exaggeration and caricature, fleeting moments of human sentiment and character emerged, principally in the character of Jenny Diver, sensitively performed and well sung by Kerri Quinn. If The Threepenny Opera is to deliver that kind of range between crowd-pleasing belters and moments of quieter reflection it needs to be well managed from the point of view of the music. The musical rhythms are vital, charming and engaging, with unusual instrumentation and harmonies to throw us off and hint at an underlying unease and sleaze. Sinead Hayes brought that out with a somewhat more refined arrangement, the restraint allowing for greater emotional expression and sensitivity than you might expect from the smoky swagger of Kurt Weill's score. The placement of the orchestra to the wings of the staircase - all dressed in character - also provided a perfect balance and stereo separation between the music and the singing. Look out, old Macky is back.