Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht by the TMC Fellows

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The Theatre at Tanglewood in Happier Days
The Theatre at Tanglewood in Happier Days

Tanglewood, Theatre, Monday, August 11, 2008, at 7:30 p.m.

Original German text and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht
English translation by David Drew and Michael Geliot

Tanglewood Music Center Vocal Fellows
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Erik Nielsen, conductor (TMC Fellow)

Doug Fitch, director and scenic designer
Yoshiaki Takao, costume designer
Clifton Taylor, lighting designer

Fatty the Bookkeeper – Alex Richardson, tenor
Trinity Moses – Jonathan Beyer, baritone
Leocadia Beckbick – Christin-Marie Hill, mezzo-soprano
Jenny – Rebecca Jo Loeb, mezzo-soprano
Jimmy Mahoney – Steven Ebel, tenor
Jacob Schmidt – Adam Sattley
Moneybags Billy – Mischa Bouvier
Alaska Wolf Joe – Evan M. Boyer
Toby Higgins – Zachary Wilder

The mood of the audience during intermission was particularly subdued. As I wandered in the dark among Tanglewood’s enormous pines, I overheard the same conversation at least three times:

“What did you think of it?”
(Pause) “It’s okay…”

It is possible to be more specific than that. The Tanglewood audience on the whole isn’t young. Most of these mostly affluent people are old enough to have some acquaintance with the politics of the left, but the annual TMC opera is hardly workers’ theater. As audiences crowd into the wonderful, atmospheric Tanglewood Theater to enjoy it, they are there in the spirit of what Brecht called “gourmet’s opera” (kulinarische Oper) in his essay about Mahagonny, in which he admitted that he and composer Kurt Weill had not totally eliminated this traditional element from their opera in their attempt to create a democratic epic opera. In the TMC production these operatic gourmet elements faired better than its Brechtian aspects, partly through the flaws of the dramaturgy itself, and partly through Doug Fitch’s slapdash staging and his and Yoshiaki Takao’s hideous design.

The musical dish the TMC Fellows served up was very fine, even elegant, a far cry from the Bauernwurst mit Kraut und Dampfkartoffeln Brecht may have considered ideal. For the most part we heard attractive, young, thoroughly trained voices which did full justice to Weill’s operatic solos and ensembles. As vocal actors, the cast was less consistent. Rebecca Jo Loeb, as Jenny, displayed a brilliant mezzo voice, which could work equally well for Mozart or Verdi, but her acting and vocal characterization were slightly stiff and generic. Christin-Marie Hill, who had been rather inadequate as Anna in Les Troyens, even in her superior Tanglewood performance, was vocally much stronger as Widow Beckbick, at least in the beginning. (In the second act, she began to flag, and in some passages she was buried by the other voices.) However, although she used her impressive size to good effect, her acting abilities were extremely limited, relying on a stern, angry facial expression and rigid phrasing to convey her character’s amoral determination. Ms. Hill looked uncomfortable, as if she would be more at ease as a queen of antiquity in some French grand opera. On the other hand, there were some performances which were truly brilliant on all counts. Jonathan Beyer was a powerful, dark Trinity Moses, and Steven Ebel gave a magnificent, truly star-quality rendition of the ill-fated Jimmy Mahoney. Charismatic on the stage, he used his lanky body with athletic strength, and his powerful and finely balanced tenor voice to create a portrayal of great variety and commitment. He could well end up owning Jimmy as Anthony Dean Griffey possesses Peter Grimes, or even greater roles, and, yes, there are greater roles. I could imagine Ebel as a very fine Tamino, perhaps even a Florestan.

Erik Nielsen (recently appointed Kapellmeister of the Frankfurt Opera), who was originally to conduct only one of the performances and took over all of them in James Levine’s absence, showed his usual versatility and fine ear for balances and texture. He did full justice to the classical side of Weill’s score—its counterpoint, lyricism, and weight, as well as its jazz elements. He seemed to take special pleasure in Weill’s scoring—the way the saxophone fits in as a solo and an ensemble instrument, for example—and brought out all the variety of timbre and texture there was to bring out. The TMC Orchestra played for him both with bite and with delicacy, occasionally suggesting an almost Mozartean quality. Nielsen’s rhythms were precise and light. I had never imagined that the orchestra of Mahagonny could sound so handsome. You may think that I am building up to criticizing Nielsen’s Weill as too musical and too pretty, that it should be harsher, but no, I found his approach really quite convincing and effective in its part in telling Brecht’s grim story. There is no question that in the TMC team, Erik Nielsen was the master chef, one of the sort who can turn from Coulibiac de Saumon to a twenty-five-dollar hamburger without flinching.

What caused the consternation among the audience was not musical. The waiters were rude; their shirts weren’t tucked in; and there were grease stains on their tuxedos. The contributions of Doug Fitch as director-stage designer and Yoshiaki Takao as costume designer were the theatrical equivalent of drinking beer out of the bottle and chewing pork rinds while telling off-color stories in an affected working-class accent—stuff that was really trendy twenty-five years ago. Sets and costumes were intended to look rough and cheap, like the tacky Gulf Coast resort they saw in Mahagonny, and that approach has worked before. However, if you’re going to serve hotdogs at Tanglewood, they still have to taste good. (Fitch calls Mahagonny “a configuration of beautiful ugliness” in his program note. That’s a nice phrase, but in practice it looked as if he thought he could create beauty through ugliness. In this case it didn’t work out.) There has to be some formal discipline and gratification for the eye. But both Fitch and Takao seemed determined to avoid that. The overall impression was that the very much in-demand Fitch was too busy to put much time into the production and decided to wing it. Nothing looked quite right, and not only because the director was striving for the amateurish effect of the worker’s theater, but because not enough time had been put in to polish the effects. The rolling structures which made up the changing scenes were too big for the stage and looked rickety. The cast members and stage hands who moved them about seemed insecure in their movements, as they did about their marks on the stage, and one felt apprehensive about potential collisions.

There were some clever ideas: the fight scene, for example, and the assembly line whorehouse, but they seemed, once again, to be sloppily executed, and in the case of the whorehouse, Brecht and Weill’s writing made sure that the effect seemed repetitious. It was a gimmick that makes an impression the first time and becomes tedious the second, third, and fourth time around. The hurricane which slowly, seemingly painfully slowly, made its approach towards Mahagonny was made present on stage with crude projections in the style of satellite weather photos. In this day and age we expect digital animations, but Fitch played another trick on us and supplied only static projections with only a few variants, creating once again the impression of crudeness. The length and repetitiveness of the scene once again stretched out the effect to excessive duration. Although subject to the same reservations, the rendering of God, as a walking, singing assemblage of flourescent tubes, was just too much fun for me to criticize. On the other hand the projections of the hurricane wreckage in New Orleans, as relevant as they are and as commendable as the gesture of showing them might be, seemed forced and fell flat, like last year’s cocktail party patter.

If I keep mentioning duration and repetitiveness in this peevish way, it comes from having been forced to look at Fitch’s ugly sets and Takao’s worse than ugly costumes without relief. The men’s costumes were harmless enough. Jimmy was in standard lumberjack attire and Trinity Moses held no surprises either, but the women’s costumes were virulently misogynistic in their tackiness and seemingly deliberate emphasis of every flaw in the wearer’s anatomy. Again, there was probably a method behind this, making the costumes seem as if each of the ladies had clumsily improvised her own costume, but the effect, when considered for sufficient time—and, as I have pointed out, there was more than sufficient time—seemed perverse and aesthetically sadistic, and this was true for all the women, from Widow Beckbick and Jenny down to the six girls of Mahagonny and the chorus. Legs and shoulders were revealed when they should not have been; proportions which were normal enough were made grotesque. Plain, boring design would have proven more serviceable in an opera in which length is an issue.

In the essay to which I have already alluded, Brecht informs us that in his and Weill’s attempt at renewing an old art form which had been developed for social classes soon to be eliminated, the response of the audience was to be different. He offers an extensive list in which his epic, narrative theater differs from dramatic theater, but most relevant here is the way in which epic theater makes the audience into observers but awakens their activity, as opposed to dramatic theater, in which the audience is emotionally drawn into the action on the stage. Instead of sharing in the experience of the characters, the audience faces them and studies their actions. Feeling is replaced by reason. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster, it shows how little an impression Brechtian theater has made on our behavior as audiences today, at least in this country. Years ago it may have been a brave endeavor for leftists in the theater, but the late forties and the fifties, when it might have established a foothold in America and built a general audience, were the most inimical to Brecht’s politics. Joseph Losey’s and Charles Laughton’s tribulations in producing Galileo for stage and screen are typical. In East Germany Brecht was able to develop and consolidate his theatrical culture through the Berliner Ensemble, the repertory theater in which he and his widow, Helene Weigl, exercised tight control over production. In the English-speaking world there was no such benchmark, and performances were not frequent or popular enough to develop a tradition. Hence, American interest in Brechtian theate has dissipated since the sixties and seventies. The Berliner Ensemble itself faired poorly after the fall of Communism, torn apart by a plethora of battling egos.

As a result, Brecht fairs best in Britain and America when his principles are somewhat compromised. Although we are not supposed to become absorbed in strong, fully developed characters and to identify with them emotionally, the most successful of his plays are those which, like Galileo, contain impressive heroes which can be fleshed out by star actors. Jimmy Mahoney may be ordinary enough, but Steven Ebel’s performance was certainly on that level. By developing their original loose series of cabaret songs into a fully formed opera, Brecht and Weill created an even greater challenge by bringing epic theater into the decadent world of opera. For many years, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, like Les Troyens, remained a tantalizing operatic mystery, especially in America, until James Levine, who, most likely enamored of its rich score and unusual dramaturgy, and concerned more with that than the opera’s potential effect on world culture, brought it to the Troisgros of opera, the Met, in 1979. There, John Dexter’s production in the same English translation used at Tanglewood survived until 1985, later revived for five performances a decade later. Mahagonny has not been on the menu since. I should also add that this is not the first TMC performance of the work. Many of the major European and American opera houses have tackled Mahagonny at least once, but it remains a rarity.

One thing one can’t criticize about Fitch’s production is its fidelity to Brecht’s principles—to a fault. Even Steven Ebel’s physical, dramatic, and vocal stature were not equal to those oversize sets and the crowding of the stage. There was every reason for Brechtian distancing to break down and release our sympathy for this unfortunate character, but even in his final scene in prison, as he awaits his execution, Jimmy remained a specimen, “an object of investigation,” in Brecht’s words. (Doesn’t that send a chill down your spine?) According to his methods, emotion is grounded, while the will of the artists and the intellect of the audience take charge. I am sufficiently unregenerate a bourgeois to find a flaw in this. In common daily experience this can get boring. Brecht’s didactic mission also calls for relentless repetition, an effective tool in learning mathematical tables and party doctrine—also effective in propaganda, a tool as much appreciated by the Bush administration and now the American religious right as it was by Goebbels and Beria. But in opera, combined with Weill’s insistent rhythms, it is tiresome, and Fitch’s production values made it deadly.

Weill’s score is indeed very fine. Brecht’s story of greed and vice is compelling, if intensely preachy. And moral lessons and social reform are hardly irrelevant in our own Mahagonny. I suspect that Fitch’s production is no more than it seems, at heart a cynical exercise in style. Many commendable efforts at reform through art have fallen flat in recent years. In seems that nothing on stage or in galleries can cut through our general indifference and lethargy. This production, in spite of its impressive musical qualities, was not only a significant retrograde step for Mahagonny’s acceptance in the repertoire, it was a depressing reminder of what a fragile vessel the arts have become in our society—highly accomplished, but fundamentally irrelevant and no more of a necessity than a Gucci handbag or lunch at Le Bernardin.

For Christopher Lydon’s interview with Erik Nielsen, Christin-Marie Hill, and Doug Fitch, click here.

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