The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Royal Opera House)
Kurt Weill's operatic collaboration with Bertolt Brecht makes it to Covent Garden at last
It's silly to be prissy about a rule book when the author himself only half respected it. Besides, the notion of epic theatre is beginning to look superannuated and a good modern director will treat a Bertolt Brecht piece on its own merits rather than doff a cap to his dogma.
The main thing is to do it well, and here we have a problem. Brecht was contemptuous of traditional lyric theatre, a mixing bowl of tried and tested ingredients that he called ‘culinary opera', so what would he have made of this new Royal Opera production? As directed by John Fulljames, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahaghonny (his 1930 collaboration with Kurt Weill) is like the proverbial cake that's been left out in the rain: bloated and indigestible.
Finn Ross is a brilliant video designer, but someone's let him loose on the decoration kit and he's squeezed every tube till it's empty. As a demo evening for state-of-the-art wizardry his double-act with designer Es Devlin may be unbeatable, but it's all of a piece with this over-conceptualised and over-produced staging of a work that cries out for a more direct approach. And since the Covent Garden stage and auditorium are both too big for it, Fulljames's priority ought to have been to draw the audience in rather than dazzle it with eye candy.
The opera itself is a startlingly, even disturbingly relevant satire on capitalism and anti-society: a u/dystopian city in which everything is permitted until it troubles the oligarchs, whereupon the harshest punishments kick in. It's a bleak tale that's all the more potent for being told in a breezy scattergun fashion by Brecht and Weill, who cunningly interpolated a single ear-catching cabaret number, ‘Alabama Song', into their otherwise stimulating and uncompromising score.
ENO's music director-elect Mark Wigglesworth conducts the ROH Orchestra in a fine, grinding account of it, albeit perhaps too polished – this god is more likely to live at the bottom of champagne flute than a whisky glass – but the Royal Opera Chorus has to contend with a surprisingly lumpen new translation by Jeremy Sams in which the unsingable and increasingly archaic word ‘spew' makes several unhappy appearances. I missed the guttural German of the original.
The American-born high tenor Kurt Streit suffers nicely as the hapless hero, Jimmy MacIntyre, even though his interior style of acting seems a tad too intense at times. He's extremely well partnered by Christine Rice as Jenny, who makes her entrance by unleashing 'Alabama Song' from the back of a truck.
Peter Hoare and Willard W. White are terrific as Mahagonny's sleazeball founding fathers – the latter channelling Samuel L. Jackson – in partnership with the Begbick of Anne Sofie von Otter, who seemed ill at ease vocally on opening night except during her spoken dialogue, which she delivered in an unnervingly good estuary English accent. (Why not American, given the setting?) Excellent work by Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Darren Jeffery and Neal Davies as Jimmy's colourful trio of friends also helped raise the temperature.
Mahagonny is a nightmare realisation of Thatcher's assertion that there is no such thing as society. If that's the case, it shouts, here's what you get instead – or, as Jenny sings once Jimmy's fate is sealed, "we've all made the bed we must lie in".
There's an election coming up. Just saying.