A Pointed Opera
Brecht and Weill cut deep, even without ‘Mack’

Bertolt and Kurt would have been happy — that’s Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, that early 20th century dynamic duo from the post-World War I land overrun with Dada and Nazis. Indeed, 77 years after its premiere in Germany, Brecht and Weill would have been very happy to see their creation, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny open again, and spectacularly, at the Spoleto festival. They would have found this sharply-honed production very much in tune with their intentions.

Their mythical utopian paradise rises and falls to prove a point, one endowed with a slightly reddish tint.

Though Mahagonny lacks the popular appeal of Brecht and Weill’s other child, Threepenny Opera, it is nevertheless a formidable masterpiece. It fuses lighthearted early 20th century jazz tunes with opera and blurs the boundaries between vaudeville, music hall, and classical theater, astutely predicting later developments, particularly in American musical theatre. One can’t imagine, for example, Bernstein’s Candide or Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd without the sweetly nihilistic Brecht-Weill source. But as a crowd pleaser, Mahagonny lacks the immediacy of a “Mack The Knife” tune — even if it does wistfully shoot for it with “Alabama Moon” (which has, by the way, been covered by The Doors and David Bowie).

There are simplistic melodies to be sure, ripe with the musical whimsy of American places — Alaska, Pensacola, Alabama — places that must have sounded as distant as Shangri-La and as utterly fantastic to poverty-stricken Germans in the post-WWI era. There are many standard ABAB forms to which Weill sometimes slavishly adheres, but all of this is weaved over a contrapuntal dissonant texture, the vocal lines sometimes melting into wonderful sprechstimme, that Teutonic invention which creates a radical vocalise, half-sung and half-spoken. All of this is surrounded by the most magical and unexpected musical textures, enough to place Mahagonny in a league with the works of other 20th century masters, like Schoenberg or Hindemith, even if at an opposite pole aesthetically.

Weill was able, in this early period, to move toward accessibility as a composer and still retain a significant amount of sophistication. Later in America he would move toward more commercialized composition, emulating Cole Porter or George Gershwin and losing, in the opinion of this reviewer, some of that individualist spark. But he always remained original and innovative.

The combination of Weill’s music and Brecht’s story and words was unique and certainly one of the key moments of 20th century musical theatre and art. Mahagonny showcases this fusion of talents well, especially as presented in this year’s Spoleto.

Brecht’s theories, his concept of “alienation theatre,” require actors to shed all superfluous attempts at gaining “audience appeal” or identification. As staged by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, this production is not only faithful to Brecht, but it takes Brechtian theory to a higher plateau, saving powerful theatrical effects only for key moments that underline Mahagonny’s deeper political themes.

Caurier and Leiser chose to avoid the temptation of choreographing Weill’s often lilting rhythms and opted for abstract stillness or exaggerated zombie-like movements that fulfill Brecht’s search for discovery in strangeness. Sometimes the approach is almost painfully dissonant, as when in a fight one expects the blows to fall with the music and they don’t. Then, in unexpected moments, the synchronization of movement and music does take place, as in the final scene when the citizens of Mahagonny seem to drive knives into each other’s bodies and collapse to the pulsing ostinato of a social Armageddon, and there is true magic underlining the meaning of the scene instead of a distraction for the audience.

Another factor in this production, the spilling of musicians on to the stage, at one point having most of the winds accompany a boxing match, is truly brilliant. In another scene, a beautifully schmaltzy honky-tonk piano entertains the patrons of a night club on stage and trades phrases with the pit orchestra — piano accompanying chorus, orchestra accompanying the tenor lead. This brings the organic sense that Brecht and Weill must have deeply yearned for in the piece, blurring still another boundary — that one between the singer on stage and the musician in the pit. Credit must be given to Emmanuel Villaume’s abilities as a conductor for succeeding with such a daring approach, often conducting groups scattered about in several different locations. His talents were already witnessed two years ago in the unforgettable production of Don Giovanni where the performance moved around the audience. Here the music invades the staged image, adding to the effect without stealing Brecht’s political thunder.

Richard Brunner plays the perfect Brechtian hero, if such an idea is even feasible. Vocally he is impressive, often competing with blaring brass and winds while navigating in his mid-range. He creates a pitiful almost laughable victim drawn to his demise by the merciless cruelty of Brecht’s political machinations and meeting his absurd Kafka-esque end with true tongue-in-cheek operatic dignity.

Tammy Hensrud delivers a satisfactory Jenny but seems to lack that Holocaust period, edgy femme fatale personality so well epitomized by Lotte Lenya or Marlene Dietrich. Hensrud does go through the moves, but she is not quite in the mold which formed the core of Brecht and Weill’s female roles. She nevertheless shines vocally and does so beautifully.

In fact, it is difficult to find anything less than spectacular about the singing or the music in this production, even when the physical challenges to the ensemble are many. I overheard one audience member refer to it as scintillating. No word can describe it better. If I have failed to single out any of the lead performers it is not because they didn’t shine, vocally or theatrically.

In a word, they rocked.

Agostino Cavalca’s costumes are stunning. Along with the old-time clown-like make-up, they bring the wax-like Brechtian characters to colorful life. Surrounded by Christophe Forey’s lighting and presented against Christian Fenouillat’s set, which fluctuates between Spartan iconoclasm and goofy splendor, the costumes often point up the bitter political sarcasm. Timothy Nolen’s look as Trinity Moses, a sort of Batman comic villain, hippie drug dealer, and evil magician all rolled into one, is sizzlingly creative.

Finally the most interesting aspect of this production is its very existence in the Spoleto universe. After all, Mahagonny is a Marxist scream of defiance against capitalism, and the Spoleto Festival is in so many ways the product of a solidly capitalist system. One could almost look at the inclusion of this piece as a biting-the-hand-that-feeds scenario.

Or it is perhaps tactful to believe that these ideas that plagued the modern 20th century, these schisms between the haves and the have-nots no longer apply? Certainly Brecht can’t possibly have our world in mind, could he? His world while writing Mahagonny was about to give birth to that monster, fascism, with its equally evil nemesis communism. Certainly neither one of those monsters lives any longer.

But then why does that final scene of Armageddon, when people unhappy with Mahagonny carry protest signs and kill each other, seem so interestingly prophetic, so contemporary? And why does that subplot of the hurricane barely missing a city hit such a responsive chord in this community? Is it possible that Brecht’s larger message, not about socialism and capitalism, but about humanity’s inability to resolve conflict and its inability to cope with its own fears and violent appetites is still relevant?

And does the fact that the Spoleto audience, made up largely of people to whom capitalist society has been very good (many of them had to remove their expensive jackets when the air-conditioning at the Sotille failed to cool the packed house), can view and accept this criticism without running for the exits mean that we have entered a new era?

Perhaps the Spoleto audience, able to shell out big money for those festival tickets, is able to view The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny as an interesting oddity, an allegorical exercise, or a colorful musical extravaganza. One can only hope that they allow themselves see it the way Weill and Brecht meant it — as a philosophical slap to the face, an insult, and at the same time a genuine and passionate attempt to educate and improve our imperfect humanity.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny • Spoleto Festival USA • $25-$130 • (2 hours 30 min.) • May 28, 30, June 1, 3, 9 at 8 p.m. • Sottile Theatre, 44 George St. • 579-3100