In the ninth scene of the first act of Brecht and Weill’s 1930 (anti) opera, the “hero”, Jimmy McIntyre rails against the newly-founded city to which he and his companions have been lured, singing over and over (and over) again “But there’s something missing. There’s nothing here”. Mid-way through this interminable, musically undistinguished sequence, I sat there thinking to myself “You’re absolutely right” It’s certainly true of the staging – certifiably D.O.A, in the dismal Act I – but it’s just as true of the work itself, which trails its politically and aesthetically épater les bourgeois radicalism before it like a badge of honour, whilst actually offering us nothing ideas-wise that couldn’t have been written on the back of a postage stamp and delivered in three seconds flat – “Capitalism is corrupt and corrupting” – gussied up in music of such short-winded, threadbare and repetitive triviality as to make “Merrie England” sound like Meistersinger. Where’s the edge? Where’s the anger? Where’s the energy? Where’s there any reason to do the thing at all (apart from managing to fill 15 whole pages of the typically irrelevant programme with full-colour pictures of skyscrapers, stock-exchanges and supermarkets)?
The sad fact is that time has been very unkind indeed to what once must have been at least mildly confrontational and shocking (though given that the Weimar Republic was already over ten years old by the time Mahagonny hit the stage in Leipzig, and was even then a byword for artistic licence and general social depravity, I’m not so sure that a world then coming to terms with the Wall Street crash the year before would have so much as raised a monocled eyebrow. Who knows, if the Nazis hadn’t banned the work in 1933, it might have simply faded into Zeitgeist-y oblivion). Eighty-five years later, on the occasion of its belated debut in Bow Street, the work now seems like very thin beer indeed, partly because of Brecht’s dramaturgy – which is more concerned with ironically moralistic finger-wagging than theatrical efficacy (or even sense) – and partly because of Weill’s score, the agreeably rag-bag eclecticism of which is alas set at nought by its poverty-stricken level of musical invention.
There have been stagings that managed to minimise these inherent shortcomings and paper over the colossal cracks, most notably John Dexter’s at the Met in 1979, with Levine conducting and Teresa Stratas as Jenny, Astrid Varnay as Begbick and Richard Cassilly – then otherwise singing Otello, Tannhäuser and Siegmund all over the world – as Jimmy (in other words, a cast of Wagnerian/Straussian monstres-sacrés all of whom could, and did, chew the scenery for breakfast and sing with rough-house, barn-storming power to boot). Here, instead, we have the ultra-refined Christine Rice in quite exquisitely cultivated, beautiful voice as the heartless whore Jenny (originally sung, sort of, by Lotte Lenya in Berlin); Anne Sofie von Otter, a naturally restrained and noble tragedy queen returning to the house after a twenty year absence, trying embarrassingly hard (and utterly failing) to slum comically as the criminal fugitive and brothel-keeper Widow Begbick; and poor Mozartian/Handelian Kurt Streit, whose upper range has now dried out to near-extinction, wrestling with the effort of trying to sing “heroic” Jimmy. Now, in the right roles and repertory, all of these are fine, and even great, artists: but you’d never know it from this achingly polite and oh-so-English performance.
So somewhere between a staging that just dies by agonising inches in Act I – full of yawning, awkward black-outs when nobody applauds between scenes and a lorry revolves endlessly around, noisily squeaking all the while, to no visual effect whatsoever – and a cast of principals who are in fact almost entirely miscast, the already in-dire-need-of-help work itself sort of grinds on and on until it just stops. Clearly the (way, way) over-promoted John Fulljames has nothing to offer in the piece directorially, not even at the level of basic theatrical competence, let alone intellectual insight or imagination: and the (way) over-praised Es Devlin’s designs spend one whole hour going nowhere and evoking nothing. It’s true that Acts Two and Three fare better visually, set as they both are up a four-tiered stage-wide-and-high stack of ships’ containers that variously open up to reveal tableaux within, and act as screens for a variety of more-or-less effective video projections: but by then the damage has been done, far too late to salvage what my straw poll in the interval revealed to be a unanimous sense of disgruntlement at the unexpected, leaden amateurishness of it all.
Under the circumstances, I’m not going to itemise at any greater length the various singers’ shortcomings, stemming mainly from miscasting, or bother to anatomise those of the dull, clunky staging, either (though the very ending is a complete and utter mess). Whoever was in charge of amplification needs shooting, because as far as I could tell In Act I von Otter’s singing was left au naturel – indeed, sometimes sank below the threshold of audibility – but the instant she spoke the volume increased preposterously (isn’t this the kind of thing rehearsals are meant to sort out? Perhaps it’s significant that by Act III she was wielding a hand-mike). Willard White’s well-worn Trinity Moses remained perfectly audible in both speech and song (not always advantageously), whilst Peter Hoare’s Fatty seemed to be the doubtful beneficiary of amplification during his singing, which he assuredly doesn’t need. And over it all, of course, sat the English translation – where is this, St. Martin’s Lane? – by turns twee, coarse and awkward, like all Jeremy Sams’ translations I’ve ever had the misfortune to have to sit through, raising the question of exactly why, at this address, we weren’t getting Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny instead in the first place.
Decent chorus work and some solid – if perhaps rather stolid – playing from the very large-looking band, big enough indeed to necessitate acoustically the removal of the Stalls Circle side seats, as if this was Elektra or Turandot, for all that smaller-scaled ensembles within the orchestra are still electronically amplified. ENO’s Music Director-designate, Mark Wigglesworth, presided musically, and brought far too much weight and ponderousness to bear, I thought, when what you need is a leaner sound, with a more bracing, Broadway-esque sense of snap-and-crackle. But then this whole sorry evening was perilously lacking in anything even faintly reminiscent of snap, let alone crackle, all smut sanitised, all savagery smoothed away. Still, just as well this was going on at the ROH and not ENO, where it would presumably have been part of their “commercial” transfer-fodder initiative, because if it had been the latter they would lose their shirts (not to mention what’s left of their subsidy). As it is, it can be chalked up as yet another new production in Bow Street entrusted to one of Holten’s homies that delivers nothing worth watching, admitting of no possibility of revival, all at doubtless great expense.
(Photos : Clive Barda)