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Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)
The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930)
Audra Macdonald (soprano) - Jenny Smith; Patti LuPone (mezzo) - Leocadia Begbick; Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor) - Jimmy; Ray Albert (baritone) - Trinity Moses; John Easterlin (baritone); Mel Ulrich (tenor) – Bill; Steven Humes (baritone) - Alaska Wolf Joe; Robert Wörle (tenor)
Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus/James Conlon
John Doyle (director)
rec. live, Los Angeles, 1, 4 March 2007
Bonus feature: “James Conlon on Mahagonny”
Region: 0; Picture Format: NTSC 16:9 anamorphic; Sound Formats: PCM Stereo; Dolby Digital 5.1; DTS 5.1
EUROARTS 2056258 [133:00 + 22:00] 
Experience Classicsonline

Bertolt Brecht had a thing for writing in pseudo-English, as if by using an artificial persona, he could express things more archly than he could in straightforward German. He uses the exotic as a kind of armour: when the exotic becomes naturalistic, something gets lost. This production of The Rise and fall of Mahagonny comes from Los Angeles, where it received much acclaim. It’s in English, and firmly set in a composite “America” where Gold Rush types mix with Florida speculators. It throws in the Benares Song for good measure, though it has little to do with America and even less to do with Benares in India. 

It’s set in English which means a few changes. Jimmy Mahoney becomes “Jimmy Macintyre” which fits better with the way Weill stress the first syllable. So there’s a slight loss in surreality, but major gains in the way the opera communicates to modern audiences. The parallels between Los Angeles and Mahagonny are uncomfortably close, which cannot possibly have been lost on the audience. The set and costumes could be straight out of Hollywood movies, so rather pretty and sentimentalised, but Hollywood itself is surreal, so it’s appropriate. The voice of the narrator comes over a PA machine like something in a prison yard, which is an insight. 

Conlon conducts the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra with a tense edginess that compensates for whatever is lost in translation into English. This throws more emphasis on the musical ideas, which is not a bad thing at all. Weill’s contribution to the Brecht/Weill partnership is often underestimated, and Weill is more inventive musically than he’s often given credit for. Here are witty set-pieces, mock-ups of operatic aria and popular tunes, quasi-pompous marches and bar-room piano rolls, complete with swooping glissandi. Deliberately out of tune, of course. 

Outstanding is Audra Macdonald as Jenny Smith, the good-time girl whose relationship with Jimmy Macintyre defines the plot. She’s a remarkably good actress, her personality lighting up the screen. She moves like a panther, hunting in the jungle, for a jungle is what Mahagonny is, full of hidden treachery. Against this the miners from Alaska have no defence. Anthony Dean Griffey is convincing as Jimmy Macintyre, at once tender and perplexed in equal doses, a surprisingly vulnerable Jimmy one can sympathise with When he gets an unfair trial and faces execution, his resignation is quite touching. Patti LuPone as the brothel-owner and founder of Mahagonny is costumed like a drag queen, but overcomes stereotypes - whatever they may mean - by a performance of surprising dignity, despite the venality of her character. This again adds to the role. 

The ensemble work is very tight, which keeps the pace moving swiftly – all credit to the LA chorus and whoever trained them. Crowd scenes are important in this orchestra, for they represent both “the masses” and monolithic power against which individuals have no control. Thus the line of mobsters, lit starkly from behind was very menacing: they are the enforcers but what they enforce is unsavoury. Everything in Mahagonny is parasitic, people strangle each other to survive. So the tightness of the smaller ensemble songs is well judged, so the voices entwine like unhealthy tendrils.

“In this world you must make your own bed, and no-one will show you the trick” sing both Jimmy and Jenny in different contexts, so why not an English adaptation? For political reasons, Brecht would have approved the vernacular because it reaches audiences more directly. That’s why Weill uses popular song, so people hum along, hardly realising they are singing something subversive. No wonder extracts like The Alabama Song and the Benares Song have made us “familiar” with Mahagonny though full recordings are few. This DVD is therefore an excellent introduction and enjoyable on those terms.

Anne Ozorio


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