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:

Brecht and Michael

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.

Jimmy is executed for having no money

Jimmy is executed for having no money

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 Widow Begbick with Trinity Moses on the left and Fatty on the right

The Widow Begbick with Trinity Moses on the left and Fatty on the right

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.

Christine Rice as Jenny

Christine Rice as Jenny

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’.

Okay – another non-critic’s view of Lyon’s première of Franz Schreker’s ‘Die Gezeichneten‘ or as they call it in French: ‘les Stigmatisés’ – or in English ‘The Marked Ones’ or ‘The Branded’. As I wrote about ‘Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’ at London’s Royal Opera House – I’m merely an observer. I’m told that apart from der ferne Klang in Strasbourg in 2012, this was the first time that a Schreker opera had ever been performed in France. Well, in the 80 years since his death this omission was more than made good. Not because the singing or the staging were so wonderful – I had issues with both – but because it proved far more than the Nikolaus Lehnhoff production in Salzburg that this is a viable, indeed powerful piece of music theatre.
'Die Gezeichneten' in Salzburg's Felsenreitschule

‘Die Gezeichneten’ in Salzburg’s Felsenreitschule

The Felsenreitschule in Salzburg is a terrific setting, but it places the opera into dimensions that burst the limitations of normal opera houses. It IS a big opera with lots and lots of secondary roles – but Schreker himself reduced the orchestration so that smaller houses could stage it. This reduced orchestration was what the Lyonnais used and despite the shock of the dry acoustic and the reduced luxuriance of the strings – especially the middle voices – it really worked and in some ways, added emphasis to colours that are only flashes on the surface of the original orchestration. But judicious cuts – both for dramatic purposes and probably for reasons of length and questions of what an un-Schrekerised public could tolerate, meant that the drama scuttled across the stage with all the narrative strength of a play by Oscar Wilde.
Les Stigmatisés Act III

Les Stigmatisés Act III

The obvious temptation to make this opera about rings of child-abusers was not entirely resisted, but not as shamefully yielded to as in Salzburg, where Lehnhoff made it so central to his view of the work, that he insisted on cuts in the music where conflicts emerged. In fact, the plot concerns young women abducted never to be seen again. Young women disappearing and finding themselves abused or sold into sex slavery is not exactly irrelevant and provided an obvious opening for the director and his team to create something that spoke powerfully to contemporary audiences. The figure of Carlotta, hitherto presented as a dominatrix from ‘50 Shades of Grey’ was instead played as a rebel child from a nice, but not aristocratic family.
Carlotta paints the soul of the ugly Count Alviano

Carlotta paints the soul of the ugly Count Alviano

When the young Count Tamare Vitelozzo is advised to forget his obsession with Carlotta, he answers ‘I’ll forget her – but not until I’ve made her my whore!’ I thought Schreker’s expression of outrage at entitlement and privilege worthy of Beaumarchais’s Figaro. The most vibrant thing that roars out of ‘Die Gezeichneten’ is the animal within us all and the heartless injustice of winners and losers and the law of the jungle. Carlotta may love the ugly Count Alviano’s soul, but she craves the handsome young Count Tamare’s body. From this, one see that the opera conveys universal as well as human messages. It paints the familiar picture of wealth and privilege amounting to nothing without love – a universal message that has been told a million times – but this time, set in a very human story with the hapless count Alviano, ugly, crippled and deformed but wealthy beyond anyone’s dreams, and his coterie of young studs who are the abductors of young women. Is, or was Alviano complicit in their sexcapades? It’s never made clear which adds an important ambiguity, making moralising conclusions impossible. Good and evil are not binary choices and as with the best of Schiller’s plays, every one of the protagonists is both good and evil at various points during the drama.
Alviano about to murder Tamare

Alviano about to murder Tamare

But perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the opera is its music – how it could have been passed over for other works that were musically far less arresting or interesting is a mystery. Schreker has not been in copyright since 2004 – and at the very least, his opera ‘Der ferne Klang’ and ‘Der Schatzgräber’ along with ‘Die Gezeichneten’ deserve a permanent place in every opera theatre with music as seductive as anything by Strauss or Korngold. How strange that it’s taken so long. Maybe then, we can start to look at Schreker’s later works from Berlin, representing transition and a fascinating alternative to our existing view of music-modernism. I understand that France Musique will broadcast ‘Les Stigmatisés’ at 19.00 French time on April 4th. Tune in if you can. In the meantime: bravo Lyon!