Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny – Weill/Brecht

Suggested readings:

Kurt Weill: The Life of Kurt Weill in

Photos and Documents (1999), David Farneth

Kurt Weill: Broadway & Hollywood (1997), Judy Bell (Editor)

Speak Low (When You Speak Love): The Letters of

Kurt Weil and Lotte Lenya (1996), Lys Symonette (Editor)

Kurt Weill: An Illustrated Life (1997), Jurgen Schebera

The Rise and Fall

of the City of Mahagonny

A new Salzburg Festival production

of the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht opera

(VHS or DVD)

Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny had its world premiere in Leipzig in 1930. It played in Berlin the following year starring the legendary Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife) whose 1988 recording of the opera is still available. The opera was then banned by the Nazis, not to be produced again in Germany until the 1950s. It has, over the years, played in opera houses around the world. Although never achieving the popularity of Weill and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, Mahagonny is, nonetheless, a work of stature with a haunting score, and, surely, a more fully operatic work than Threepenny.

The story of the opera is unique. Three fugitives from the law create the city of Mahagonny where no one works. Pleasure – drinking, gambling, sex – is the order of the day and money alone rules. The implications for a society organized on such a value system is the overarching theme of the opera, which explores scenarios of greed, gluttony, lust, and a justice system in which a murderer can buy his way to freedom, but inability to pay a bill results in conviction and a death sentence.

The heroine, Jenny, is a prostitute. Jim Mahoney is a lumberjack, her lover, who runs out of money and will die for that failure. The third major role is Mrs. Begbick, a madame. The themes are highly political, of course, from a highly political librettist, but if the politics seem a bit dated, the underlying insights into human behavior ring true still and the satire retains its bite. On the other hand, the allegorical nature of the work tends to overshadow any serious character development and the roles, though offering plenty of opportunity for bravura singing and acting, are not likely to elicit emotional identification.

Deutsche Oper’s current production by G�nter Kr�mer is abstracted, making no attempt to create the Old West (U.S.) setting of the book. A flag pole in the center of the stage functions in a variety of ways. It bears the flag – with a hole in its center – of Mahagonny, it allows various characters a place to climb in the highly choreographed staging, and it becomes the execution post for Jim Mahoney. Stark white background is used for some scenes, allowing for dramatic use of silhouette compositions. A bare stage background is used for other scenes, with occasional panels, banners, even a chandelier that rises out of the orchestra pit. The visual interest is focused in the costuming and movement of both individual characters and the chorus, often decked out in white tie and Mickey Mouse masks, projecting just the right ironical tone of forced happiness, fully appropriate for the city of Mahagonny. In the predominantly black and white color scheme, bright red shoes on the chorus of hookers, and on Madame Begbick, creatively and economically provide both visual interest and textual underlining. The red shows up again in the boxing gloves in the second act, boxing gloves of radically different sizes – the fix is in.

With tempos well modulated to keep the pace brisk, conductor Jonathan Webb was in fine control of the large ensemble. (Webb was brought in after the original conductor ran into difficulties. He seems to have rescued a floundering production.) The choruses, particularly the large men’s contingent, were impressive, the choreographer, Darnel Toulon, keeping them as busy moving about the stage as they were with their strong singing. Karan Armstrong, as Begbick, delivers a convincing performance, in good voice and finding just the right sardonic tone for the cynical widow. Maria Husmann sings Jenny. Like Webb, she was added to the ensemble to replace a predecessor, a good actress who was not up to the singing demands of the role. Husmann has a pleasing, clear, and musical soprano, but if we’ve traded in the actress for the singer, we have in Hussman a lack of dramatic presence or personality and a degree of awkwardness on stage, especially in her ill-advised attempts at dance. Ralf Willersh�user, with a full and powerful tenor instrument, was a fine Jim Mahoney.

Deutsche Oper’s Mahagonny, with its changes in personnel, now offers a solid evening of musical theater, effective dramatically and musically. It would be a shame if this production did not find its audience after the earlier missteps.

San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.