Giuseppe Pennisi was in Berlin for
the opening night of a revival of
'The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny'
Even though it is a purely Marxist work (and Marx and Lenin were put to sleep forever, several years ago), Aufstrieg und Fall Der Stadt Mahagonny ('The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny'), by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, is one of the most frequently performed operas of the German repertory of the nineteen thirties. When I lived in the United States, in the seventies, I saw at least two different productions in English. In Italy, I saw productions in Roman and Neapolitan dialects. In capitalist Geneva, I attended the opening evening of the 1992-93 opera season featuring a new production of Mahagonny (in the new German critical edition) chosen for the event. This is a clear indication that Mahagonny still captures audiences. Thus, during a trip to Berlin, I booked to see the Komische Oper for the opening night of a revival (2 June to 30 June 2012) of a production which originally premiered on 24 September 2006 and is still going strong, also attracting a large number of comparatively young people.
Martin Winkler as Bill, Thomas Ebenstein as Jakob Schmitt, Kor-Jan Dusselje as Jim Mahoney and Carsten Sabrowski as Joe in 'The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny', by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, at the Komische Oper in Berlin. Photo © 2012 Monika Rittershaus. Click on the image for higher resolution
Mahagonny had a long and complicated gestation. A one-act Songspiel was originally presented at the Deutsche Kammermusik Baden-Baden Festival in 1927; it was described by Weill as 'a stylistic study by the way of preparation for the operatic work'. The three act opera was unveiled in the Neues Theater in Leipzig in 1930 with an all-star cast where the first night provoked one of the greatest scandals in the history of twentieth century music. Further productions followed in Brunswisk and Kassel as well as Berlin (in 1931). It had been rejected by the Kroll Opera; thus a shorter version was presented in a minor house. Again, there were troubles. The Nazis condemned the score to be burnt. A copy, or part of it, was taken to the US where Weill and Brecht had emigrated. In the late thirties, a new version of Mahagonny (in English) reached the American stage on the eve of World War II. Meantime, the personal and professional relationship between Weill and Brecht had deteriorated. The composer was attracted by the American life style and music, and wrote scores for both stage and movies, whilst the playwright was increasingly linked to 'epic theatre' dramaturgy, which meant to be didactic and to stir the audience towards a totally encompassing world-wide revolution; after the war, Brecht ran to East Germany. In short, a full critical edition was published as late as in 1988. This is the version presented in the current Komische Oper production.
Kor-Jan Dusselje as Jim Mahoney in 'The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny', by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, at the Komische Oper in Berlin. Photo © 2012 Monika Rittershaus. Click on the image for higher resolution
Mahagonny is an apologue of capitalist society. Three runaways (from jail) decide to build a 'happiness city' where everything is allowed, provided you have the money to pay for what you want. The new town attracts former criminals, gold searchers, prostitutes and pimps. A former gold rusher, Jim Mahoney, is condemned to be hung, not because he killed a couple of people, but because he cannot pay his gambling debt. Whilst the hanging proceeds, a major typhoon clears up the town and his populace. Without Weill's skillful and astute score, nowadays Brecht's text would not stand a single performance. The Marxist tale is musically constructed with arioso, songs, and full-stop numbers with parodies of classical devices and citations from well known German repertory -- eg the refrain of the bridesmaid's chorus from Der Freischütz is sung to the words Schöner, grüner Mond von Alabama. Also it is remarkable how many shifts of mood and atmosphere Weill imposed on the narrative -- even though sardonically everything doubles back on itself, eg the lyrical duet of Jenny and Jim slaps the face with arid pulsing of a scoring based on Bach and the scene where the men laze around takes irony from a cheap sentimental ballad played on the piano. Weill was Busoni's favorite pupil: thus, he had mastered the mysteries of form and devices but the special personality of his sound was as original in its own way as that of Stravinsky. Both composers built their music on the past but, especially in Mahagonny, Weill constructed a pastiche where he mixed neo-classicism with the flavors of Bach chorales, dance band, fugato trios, foxtrot, bizarre three note patterns and vocal combinations of late romantic arioso, rhythmic ensemble and even emphasis on middle voice. It is a pastiche with integrity and wholeness. In my view, the eighty-five-year-old Mahagonny survives, and is in good health, not because of its Marxist message but due to its score. Twentieth century music specialist Ethan Mordden ranks it at the same level as Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. Stephen Hinton underlines that Mahagonny is 'a structure based on pure musical laws', thus a work quite distant from Brecht's Marxist 'epic theatre'.
Thomas Ebenstein as Jakob Schmitt and members of the chorus, in 'The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny', by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, at the Komische Oper in Berlin. Photo © 2012 Monika Rittershaus. Click on the image for higher resolution
Against this background, the Komische Oper production is to be appraised. To begin with, it is useful to recall that, like the other two major Opera Houses in Berlin, the Komische follows the repertory system -- successful stagings are revived every year, even for decades. It is also a comparatively small theatre known for its innovation and experimentation. Every year, it offers about twelve new productions and some twenty-five revivals, ie nearly forty titles. It has a permanent company of singers and, of course, a permanent chorus and orchestra.
Christiane Oertel as Leokadja Begbick, Tatjana Gazdik as Jenny and Kor-Jan Dusseljee as Jim Mahoney, in 'The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny', by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, at the Komische Oper in Berlin. Photo © 2012 Monika Rittershaus. Click on the image for higher resolution
The musical direction of this Mahagonny is entrusted to Martin Hoff, the stage direction to Andreas Homoki, with sets by Hartmut Meyer, costumes by Mechthild Seipel and videos by Momme Hinrichs and Torge Moller. The cast includes Christiane Oertel (Leokadja), Micheal Pflumm (Fatty), Jens Larsens (Moses), Noemi Nadelmann (Jenny), Kor-Jan Dusseljee (Jim Mahoney), Thomas Ebenstein (Schmidt), Horst Lamnek (Bill), Carsten Sabrowski (Joe), Peter Renz (Tobby) and Katja Zinsmeister (Narrator).
Jens Larsen as Dreieinigkeitmoses, Christiane Oertel as Leokadja Begbick, Peter Renz as Toby Higgins, Christoph Späth as Fatty and members of the chorus in 'The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny', by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, at the Komische Oper in Berlin. Photo © 2012 Monika Rittershaus. Click on the image for higher resolution
The three acts (and twenty scenes) are divided into two parts of roughly one hour each. Each part has a single set; in the first we see the construction of Mahagonny in the desert with men at work in the background where the action unfolds. In the second act, Mahagonny looks like a flashy but cheap Florida or Caribbean resort where the cruel plot slides to its unhappy end. Each scene has a very short spoken presentation (as required by Brecht). Komische Oper's house singers are not all top-notch -- many young singers are employed and start their careers there -- but it is amazing how all of them and the chorus can act and dance. Martin Hoff wielded his baton solidly, to give coherence to Weill's pastiche, and more significantly to extract the wholeness of musical integrity from it. The company copes well with eclectic musical demands, especially Noemi Nadelmann as a powerful Jenny, whilst on 2 June, tenor Kor-Jan Dusseliee (as Jim Mahoney), although much applauded, did not appear to me to be at his best.
Copyright © 13 June 2012 Giuseppe Pennisi,
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE CITY OF MAHAGONNY
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