With its all-star bone-fide operatic cast, Weill and Brecht’s 1928 sensation The Threepenny Opera arrived at the Barbican’s Great Performers season as part of a four-date whistle-stop European tour, which started in Hamburg and, after London, has gone on to Paris before ending in Vienna, home to its orchestra – Klangforum Wien – and chorus – Chorus Sine Nomine.
Conducted by Weill aficionado HK Gruber, who also took the role of Jonathan Peachum in his distinctive chansonnier style (entertainingly gesticulating at the same time to keep the ensemble, behind him, in time), this concert performance, with linking narrative, sought to capture the work from cabaret style and hold up its operatic credentials. For the most part it did just that. Only Gruber (who said he was delighted to reprise his role of Peachum in such exalted operatic company) was from a cabaret tradition and all the singers acquitted themselves well.
The surprise, to me, was the outstanding success of Ian Bostridge. In his article in The Guardian the previous Thursday he revealed his penchant for the work, having directed a production at college, but I had not expected such a good Macheath from him. Of course, if not the starring role, Macheath has the advantage of the opening song, Mackie Messer and Bostridge, enunciating perfectly, captured the snide arrogance of his character. Coming on in shades for the final act (though not actually singing in them) was another lovely little touch.
All but Dutch Cora Burggraff, the rest of the cast were echt German and emulated Bostridge’s clear delivery, at least from where I was sitting, although I understand that voices did not carry well to the sides of the stalls, as speakers for amplification were not angled to the extremities. But the singers’ best efforts were rather hampered by the stilted narration, given in heavily accented English by Christoph Bantzer – so that Tunbridge became “Turnbridge” and, at one point, shortly after the interval, he resorted to German for one section. It is a shame that – at least at the Barbican – there wasn’t an English narrator on board to propel the action on. Here the show stagnated without music.
Although the programme, and Christopher Cook’s otherwise informative and informal note, failed to mention it, the narration was based on a Brecht original, made for the work’s first recording, a fact cleared up with recourse to Gruber’s 1999 recording (which similarly uses it). The RCA Red Seal recording also confirmed that the version used – complete with harmonium and Hawaiian guitar – was that of the Kurt Weill Edition, based on the original stage band parts for seven players, edited by Stephen Henton and Edward Harsh. Certainly Gruber’s 18 hours of rehearsals (12 solely with the instrumentalists before the singers joined) paid dividends: the Klangforum Wien was a match for Weill’s sinuous, insidious score.
But it does remain a curious work. Typically each song has an abstract title – Dorothea Roeschmann as Polly singing the Barbara Song (or, indeed, Pirate Jenny); Angelika Kirchschlager’s Jenny singing the Solomon Song; Florian Boesch’s Tiger Brown singing The Cannon Song; and Hanna Schwarz’s Mrs Peachum singing The Ballad of the Prisoner of Sexuality. There’s even a song for orchestra alone! But the plot manages to be both slight and repetitive (Macheath has at least two wives with Tiger’s daughter Lucy also after him, hence Roeschmann’s and Burggraff’s delicious Jealousy Duet) so despite the musical gems, one is left somewhat wanting.
So qualified rapture then – although I suspect the recording (surely, there will be a recording!) will sort out most of the live problems over the narration.