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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.