Leocadia Begbick (head gangster): Patti LuPone Jenny (prostitute): Audra McDonald Jimmy McIntyre (lumberjack): Anthony Dean Griffey
Kurt Weill is the European composer closest to American idiom, bringing us a European vision showing elements of jazz style. His orchestra emphasizes winds much like the orchestra for an American musical.
The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Weill on words by Berthold Brecht is from 1931, before both Weill and Brecht were run out of Germany and before Weill's American period. It is intended to be an opera, an opera that parodies and subverts opera.
Here opera disintegrates into a series of short scenes made up of songs and fragments. It is true opera because any spoken dialog is accompanied by orchestra, often covering and obscuring the dialog. Surtitles showed the sung but not the spoken text which was generally completely not understandable.
The music is in a style that feels familiar and comfortable, not at all distancing like Berg, for instance. It could be ours.
Theatrically it is something else again. Clearly Brecht was alienated from life as he experienced it. Life is about eating, loving, fighting and drinking. Mahagonny is like San Francisco or Reno, a boom town for the newly rich. Except it's in Alabama, up river from Pensacola, I guess. The geography is a bit odd. All the women are prostitutes, and Jenny is the high priced one.
Brecht wants you to dislike everyone, to hate the life they create and presumably long for the glories of communism. Alienation is more than the outcome, it is the objective.
Does it work? And did it work here in the production by the LA Opera?
I kept mentally comparing it to Cabaret and wishing for a more intimate environment where the singers balanced better with the orchestra. Or [shudder] were miked.
Handel's integration of chorus into opera seria does not impede the development of the characters or the flow of the drama. The chorus in Mahagonny takes over and becomes an abstracting, annoying bitch. The characters never become human and apparently aren't intended to.
There is a court scene where Leocadia Begbick, the founding mother of Mahagonny, judges and sentences Jimmy, found guilty of a wide variety of crimes. The penalties are deliberately the opposite of any real value. Killing is considered a victimless crime since no one can come forward to complain. For that he gets a week. For touching Begbeck's pool cue without paying he gets the death penalty. Jimmy was sung very well by Anthony Dean Griffey.
"Moon of Alabama," sung fabulously by Audra McDonald in the role of Jenny, is as close as this work gets to a hit tune. It isn't close enough. Audra is a performer on an entirely other scale from ordinary mortals, transferring easily from Broadway into this much more operatic score and completely conquering it. Patti LuPone, in contrast, seemed a little out of her Fach singing Leocadia.
This is a work which could be written about for hours. It is full of attractive jazzy music and disgusting people and events. One character dies from overeating, one dies in a boxing match, one is executed for not paying his bar tab. It's hard to make into a clear message.
And the production didn't help at all. Everything was kept at a level of cold abstraction that completely dehumanized the entire work. Can this be what Brecht wanted? It was cold, cold to the point of shivering. I say bring them to life and let us be disgusted by their actions. Give us the chance to hate them instead of being merely indifferent.
Why hire Audra McDonald and turn her performance into an abstraction? I don't think Brecht was going for a mere polemic, a chorus of lecturing nags and people with no personalities. He would have wanted active hatred.
I am imagining a production for this. In my production it would begin exactly as this one did with a broken down truck and a bare stage. But instead of staying bare and drab, a city like Las Vegas would rise in the desert. Isn't Mahagonny Las Vegas, the sin capital? I want to see glitter and glamour rise in the desert. Instead the stage stays bare. A few signs are wheeled on and off. The message seems to be that sin is drab and unattractive.