Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Royal Opera House, Covent Garden)
March brings a Kurt Weill score with libretto by Bertolt Brecht, from 1930 Leipzig, just as the Weimar Republic started to die. London’s Royal Opera House (ROH) took 85 years to catch up with a rollocking modernist production supporting Jeremy Sams’ street-wise translation. Has it made up for lost time?
The opera might be considered a morality tale. Three crooks on the run found a settlement where anything goes: one, the widow (and brothel madam) Begbick, has seven ‘girls’ available. Four Alaskan lumberjacks also arrive seeking a better life. Given the location (‘Amerika’) this might be the Puritans’ ‘shining city on a hill’, the perfectible Susquehanna society of Southey and Coleridge, a socialist utopia.
But Brecht doesn’t do bromides. At first the utopian project founders on its economic contradictions and an excess of rules (‘no happy songs after nine o’ clock’). One lumberjack, Jimmy McIntyre (Kurt Streit), becomes so disillusioned he calls for re-foundation of Mahagonny as a city of licence. You can have your dream provided you can pay: it is a bourgeois republic of rights, a new Sodom where men find food, sex, fighting and drink. The crooked accountant Fatty eats himself to death; Depression-era queues await Begbick’s girls; lumberjack Alaska Joe briefly tastes boxing glory before dying in a bare-knuckle fight. The only two female ‘characters’ are Begbick (an underpowered Anne Sofie von Otter), a maker of markets and Jimmy’s girlfriend Jenny (Christine Rice), a woman on the make. The waitresses assisting Fatty’s gastro-suicide are in supportive roles. Begbick’s other girls don’t even have names,
When free-spending Jimmy can’t pay his whisky bill, there’s a reckoning. In court he finds Begbick presiding. Earlier she took a bribe to acquit a murderer because no injured party had come forward to complain! But Jimmy is skint so gets blamed for crimes he has not committed. Worse, for buying whisky without paying – his only property crime – he is condemned to death. The law exists solely to ensure the process of exchange is unimpeded: justice itself is merely another traded commodity. The only capital crime is to lack the means of exchange. No one who has drunk with Jimmy now offers their own money to save him. Jenny betrays him too and returns to whoring. A commentator sneers that the opera audience wouldn’t stump up either, and the Covent Garden cameras switch to the expensive stalls front row to underline the point. Jimmy gets the chair, his electrocuted body mangled like Christ’s on the cross.
The classically-trained Weill was not a musical revolutionary. His slightly older contemporaries – Schoenberg, Bartok, Berg – all pushed the boundaries more. Even Brecht smocked his conservatism. But Mahagonny brilliantly references a range of musical modes from Beethoven to jazz, anticipating his Hollywood years when he was a father of the musical. His lyrical gifts are heard in Jenny’s haunting ‘O Moon of Alabama’. Weill and Brecht also produced the sung ballet The Seven Deadly Sins and The Threepenny Opera, debunking high culture and holding a mirror to the venal audience. We don’t need to imagine them, only look at Georg Grosz’s Weimar caricatures. The Brownshirts demonstrating at Mahagonny’s premiere and disrupting later performances knew what was going on. In 1933 Brecht and Weill (who was Jewish) left Germany just in time.
Georg Grosz, The Pillars of Society (1926)
Sometimes the ROH production of Mahagonny forces its audience to think, not wallow. Begbick’s giant lorry is straight out of a Calais truck-park. Spun round it’s a nightclub where a virtuoso black pianist plays jazz. Spun again it’s a brothel shuffling men queue for. Clever graphics depict the stock market and a hurricane that menaces – but hilariously avoids – Mahagonny. The Jimmy/Jenny romance ends with his money and is barely redeemed. But did the audience leave unsettled? Perhaps Mahagonny comes too early in Brecht’s career for this question, and it was after all a co-production. And in our era, when no-one at HSBC is to blame and we still haven’t sent any bankers to the chair, perhaps we are unshockable. Our reality makes this dystopia tame, for all the jokes and virtuoso singing.
(This is an edited version of a review to appear in the April 2015 number of Labour Briefing)