REVIEW: Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny at the Royal Opera House

Mahagonny, Royal Opera. Photo Credit: ROH/ Clive Barda

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
(Royal Opera House, 14th March 2015, third of seven performances.(*) Review by Sebastian Scotney)

We all have things that it is difficult to be impartial about, and my view of Bertolt Brecht, who wrote the libretto for Mahagonny, was prejudiced from a very early age. My mother, an aspiring actress in Berlin in her youth, auditioned in 1931 for a part in his play Die Mutter. Thereafter, Brecht was to remain in her memory as a revolting man with a clammy handshake, filthy clothes and a horrible old cigar...who hadn't given her a part.

Perhaps this aversion also pre-determines me to see some hollow ironies in the central message of Mahagonny, which is that in this world it's everyone for themselves, because Brecht definitely was. Some of the best words of the opera, includng the lyrics of the one hit song, Alabama-Song were almost certainly not penned by Brecht himself but by his normally uncredited co-writer Elisabeth Hauptmann.

The premiere of the full opera version of Mahagonny had been a year earlier than when my mother met him. Brecht at this time was already entering the period of his most hard-core and unforgiving didacticism, which was seen at its most extreme and hectoring in the Lehrstücke and Die Mutter. Already in Mahagonny, there is no shying away from the ramming home of a message. Brecht wanted to show sleaze, greed, the pursuit of wealth for its own sake as being despicable. His goal was ruthlessly to expose the fault-lines in capitalist society. The world he portrays to get that message across is one in which none of characters have any family ties or loyalties, there is no basis for any trust, and any display of feeling is either insincere or irrelevant. Only one character is called upon to express genuine affection, (spoiler alert) just a few moments before the object of that affection is electrocuted. It is a bleak message, and Brecht's way was to omit anything which might contradict it.

The resources materialized for Brecht and Weill to expand their original 25-minute "Songspiel" - which is still the work by which most people get to know Mahagonny - to the length of a full opera, which in this new production directed by John Fulljames contains 135 minutes of music. Knowing the Songspiel, the question which kept coming back to me was whether the opportunity which Brecht and Weill had to work on the larger canvas is effective. To me the Songspiel works. In full-length opera form, it feels over-inflated.

That said, there are some very talented people involved in this production, which produced some fine moments. Conductor Mark Wigglesworth and the Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus injected plenty of life and variety. Principal tuba Ben Thomson dealt with his agile part in style. And while the staging encourages the sense that  the soprano saxophone in the on-stage band is there to embody sleaze, jazz saxophonist Mark Lockheart's sheer musicality made a moment to treasure. I also enjoyed the way in which Christine Rice reminded me of another opera singer who in her time was really able to hit home with those Weill melodic lines, Teresa Stratas. Visually, designer Es Devlin and video designer Finlay Ross have made a show which is brightly coloured and appealing to watch. 

Overall, however, it seemed a night when uncomfortable ironies seemed unavoidable. This is an opera trying to put the knife into capitalism...from which one heads straight downstairs into a champagne bar. The prominent ads in the printed programme for the opera, encouraging people to invest vast sums into brand new luxury London apartments at sky-high prices are another very disquieting juxtaposition.

The Royal Opera House has all but sold out this run of seven performances, so the cinema showings (details below) will be the main way people can catch this production. A thought-provoking evening, but it's a struggle to make all of those thoughts positive.

(*) The April 1st performance will be broadcast live into cinemas. For details of cinemas showing it FOLLOW THIS LINK

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