The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, March 2015.Posted on 11 March 2015
This is not an easy work to stage, emerging as it does from two slightly incompatible attitudes, by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, as to its eventual form.
Its genesis lay in a series of songs — the Mahagonny Gesänge — published by Brecht in April 1927, which inspired Weill to fulfil a commission he had received a month earlier for a short opera. This he did by producing a Singspiel lasting less than half an hour, and its succès de scandale determined author and composer to create this full-length opera.
The story is that three losers, Leokadja Begbick, Trinity Moses and Fatty — fugitives from justice — decide to found a city in the middle of nowhere providing whatever people think they want. It is set in America, and this production wisely converts the German to English in an excellent translation by Jeremy Sams. One could argue that at a deeper level this opera is about the attractiveness, but ultimate folly, of idolatry — in this case money, sex on demand, gluttony, and maybe a few more. An example of fanatical idolatry today in the form of martyrdom, cruelty, and destruction of ancient history is starkly on display in Syria and Iraq, and one could make a case for setting the opera in an entirely different context, as sometimes happens with well-known works. But this opera is relatively seldom performed and director John Fulljames has very sensibly gone for a standard production, which with excellent sets by Es Devlin and lighting by Bruno Poet provides a wonderfully colourful take on an unusual work.
Weill went to some trouble to combine glorious melody with a musical coldness, and in the Act I scene before the announcement of a typhoon the designers have created multiple switches between a warm Hawaiian mood and winter snow, with Robert Clark playing an excellent on-stage piano. This and the execution of Jimmy, his agony shown in close-up on a screen to one side, were highlights of the production.
Of course if you don’t want to see such a dystopian view of the world, don’t go, but then you miss the fine conducting of Weill’s music by Mark Wigglesworth, future music director of the ENO. You would also miss some excellent performances, particularly by Christine Rice as a warmly sung Jenny, Kurt Streit as a firmly voiced Jimmy, and Peter Hoare and Willard White as Fatty and Trinity Moses. Anne Sophie von Otter was conspicuously miked up for her speaking passages, but her English enunciation was superb, and the voice of Paterson Joseph gave a strong line to the narrator.
In my view this worked much better than the previous time I saw the opera, partly due to Wigglesworth’s excellent musical direction. I only wish John Fulljames could avoid overt political commentary, on climate change in connection with the typhoon — better to leave that sort of thing to Brecht and Weill.
Performances continue on various dates until April 4, with a live BBC Radio 3 broadcast on March 14, and live cinema relay on April 1 — for details click here.