London 'Mahagonny' sticks to message - man is own worst enemy

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 10, 2015 10:51 PM

By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, who together created "The Threepenny Opera" and its hit song "Mack the Knife", intended their follow-up, "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" to be a rude critique of capitalism.

A new production by the Royal Opera House that premiered on Tuesday has updated the 1930 work, famed for its "Alabama Song" covered by everyone from The Doors to David Bowie, to tackle globalization and climate change. But it hews close to the original message - man is his own worst enemy.

"Who needs help from hurricanes?" sings the cast of this dark, despairing but hugely diverting two-hour-long opera. "We're spoiling the world just fine."

The opera, quickly banned by the Nazis and infrequently revived until the 1960s, is set in a fictional pleasure city established by three fugitives led by Leocadia Begbick, sung by Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter in a purple wig.

Anything goes in Mahagonny, from drinking to whoring to gluttony, as long as you can pay. Having no cash is worse than murder and will cost hero Jimmy McIntyre, sung by tenor Kurt Streit, his life.

Brecht and Weill situated their Mahagonny on the West Coast of the United States, where Begbick and her sidekicks hoped to milk the riches of gold prospectors and lumberjacks.

Director John Fulljames, for the ROH's first production of the opera, makes Mahagonny a city of shipping containers that could be anywhere, a nod to how capitalism not only triumphed despite economic turmoil in Weimar Germany at the time the piece was written, but has pretty much conquered the world.

The production makes extensive use of video projections, including one of a typhoon bearing down on Mahagonny, destroying all the surrounding cities, but miraculously, and ridiculously, hopping past the city of sin.

Another projection updates Brecht's take on mankind's vexed relation to the environment, saying that at the time of writing no one could have foreseen the increased energy consumption and carbon emissions that have made storms, such as that which menaces Mahagonny, more intense.

Making the opera more relevant gives the audience something to ponder, but the jewel in the crown is Weill's inventive score. It weaves 1930s German cabaret with polyphony, jazz and 20th century modernism, but never loses sight of "Alabama Song".

The song is reprised near the end by prostitute Jenny, sung by soprano Christine Rice. Weill well knew it was a masterpiece.

(Michael Roddy is the European entertainment editor for Reuters. The views expressed are his own.)

(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)