The culmination of Brecht and Weill’s tumultuous three-year collaboration, Mahagonny is a bizarre and difficult work. Expanded from their 1927 songspiel, the opera tells of the foundation of the city of Mahagonny by the outlaw Widow Begbick, and encompasses everything from economic collapse and impending ecological apocalypse, to the defeat of God himself.
It is hardly surprising, then, that this is the Opera House’s first Mahagonny. Directed by John Fulljames in collaboration with designer Es Devlin, the dazzling production handles the episodic narrative cleverly, with a truck and shipping containers rotated and shuffled to reveal new levels of the city’s depravity.
Crowds of be-suited men gather round to have a go on Mahagonny’s trailer-trash prostitutes or to watch a succession of grotesque spectacles – Jack O’Brien eating himself to death, Alaska Wolf Joe killed in a mismatched boxing fight, Jimmy MacIntyre sentenced to death in a miscarriage of justice.
Well-known musical numbers such as ‘Alabama Song’ and ‘Benares Song’ were delivered with gusto. Kurt Streit played Jimmy with a desperate, quivering tenor, and Christine Rice, with sultry soprano, made the prostitute Jenny far more radiant than she really deserves. Anne Marie Gibbons had the unenviable task of stepping in for an under-the-weather Anne Sofie Von Otter as the scheming Widow Begbick. She delivered some perfectly fine singing but nowhere near enough grotesquery.
Conductor Mark Wigglesworth was given a slightly unwieldy beast to tame – an ensemble half-way between orchestra and jazz band. At times, they got stuck in to Weill’s angst-ridden melodies and idiomatic jazz sonorities. Generally, though, they were not quite agile enough to inject energy into a meandering piece.
As a satire of grand opera, Mahagonny felt slightly out of place in the Opera House. The decision to perform it in English was also questionable – one missed the expressive and guttural qualities of the original German. However, it was a visually awesome production, and full of the Weimarrisms one expects – sex, booze, politics and excess. Furthermore, the angular jazz of Weill’s score can be thrilling, especially when brought to life by the smaller on-stage ensembles.
To sell out Covent Garden over four nights for a challenging and dialectical piece of music-theatre is no mean feat. This was an admirable effort to stage a neglected work that is certainly oblique, yet occasionally thoroughly rewarding.