Not Reviews, but observations: ‘Mahagonny’ in London and ‘Die Gezeichneten’ in Lyon
The last thing I wanted to do was to turn this site into me reviewing performances and CDs. As a recording producer, I’ve read too many reviews – good and bad – that missed the point and only underlined how a review can only be the opinion of a single person on a single evening at a singular point in his or her existence. Too many variables are involved for anything sensible to come out. Critics spend their days listening to CDs and evenings attending performances. There is no way that objectivity plays any part in their conclusions: they’re as shell-shocked as any trench-fighter on the Western Front. So please don’t mistake these short observations on two performances I’ve seen over the past week as ‘reviews’. I’ve posted These musings on Facebook, but for the benefit of non-Facebookers, I’ll repost them here:
Well – I threatened to write a few words about the Royal Opera’s ‘Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’ in its newly commissioned English translation. Here goes – nothing too long as I’m no critic, merely an observer. To illustrate, I’ll use a photo of me some 30 years ago in East Berlin – at a time when I was youthfully convinced that ‘Mahagonny’ was the greatest opera of the 20th century. Disadvantages of translating Brecht’s text are obvious: paradoxically one loses his schoolboy use of English. It was meant to be as ironic as his setting of place-names he couldn’t locate but liked the sound of, such as Pensacola or Benares. The alienation in the German seems to lose its bite in translation, but then, he was reflecting the hard realities of the 1920s and 1930s.
On the other hand, the fundamental truth that money was all that mattered is as true today as it was then. We read in our daily papers (in fact, in today’s paper!) about powerful people getting off criminal charges because they can afford the defence teams ordinary people can’t (Berlusconi). Political parties in Britain have started to resemble clubs rather than national consensuses. Membership seems to have shifted to the rich and powerful and the few activists who delude themselves as being close to power. Banks wreck lives and national economies with impunity, the prime-minister’s wife is paid a vast sum for share options she appears to have acquired through the connections of loyal friends in high places (http://www.theguardian.com/…/tory-donor-windfall-for-camero…) and truly, the message of ‘Mahagonny’ seems more relevant than ever. I thought Brecht’s earthy bite would be lost in translation and to some extent, it was. But on the other hand using the translation to smooth over the narrative incoherencies offers real benefits. I’m afraid I was reminded of how I most enjoy Shakespeare when I hear it in a modern German translation and the idiosyncrasies of the age and language are inevitably updated. Such was the transformation of ‘Mahagonny’ – the experimental ‘epic’ ideas of Brecht were still in development and allowed to dominate whatever linear narrative there was. Indeed, the ‘story’ – such as it is – was merely a vehicle for Brecht’s ‘epic theatre’ as a device for political instruction. But we live in a different age, and we expect a linear narrative that makes sense – Jenny and Jimmy may remain cyphers – which they are, but The Widow Begbick, Trinity Moses and Fatty have to be real.
The translation gives the narrative a coherency it has always lacked – even the Typhon and God-in-Mahagonny sequences seemed to fit in. The staging was effective and imaginative. The singing excellent, though Jenny was a little too wholesome to be the whore Brecht intended. Jenny is no whore-with-a-heart but a whore without a heart who wants you think she has a heart, and that’s a lot more difficult to pull off! She sang beautifully and looked like a nice girl pretending to be a slut.
Begbick was my biggest disappointment – and here I’ll mention a name: Anne Sofie von Otter is simply not stentorian enough for the role. She needs to dominate every single scene vocally and cut across the others like an Alaskan buzz-saw. Von Otter is too soft-grained and making her look and sound like a bit of Essex trailer-trash didn’t compensate. Amplifying her Mrs Lovett dialogue delivery (This was no Abba English, but a Swede delivering a credible East London accent) then switching it off again when she started to sing only made her lack of vocal weight the more conspicuous. For the final scene, she was handed a microphone to hold like a reporter on location. Was this an idea of the producer, or an act of desperation towards the end of a demanding evening? Who knows. It almost made dramatic sense. But for me – despite the numerous ensemble disparities between stage and orchestra pit (particularly in the chorus scenes), the biggest winner of the evening was the conducting. Probably for the first time since hearing this opera, it wasn’t performed like Threepenny Opera Mark 2, but like the grand opera Weill intended. It showed its Busoni provenance boldly and elevated it out of the misconception that ‘Mahagonny’ is the Weimar Republic’s answer to ‘Sweeny Todd’. It still fascinates though the work is deeply flawed on many levels. But I suppose that never stopped anyone from mounting ‘Forza del destino’.