Heady Soundworld of Weill/Brecht’s Mahagonny Recreated at Covent Garden

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Weill, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (sung in English): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Mark Wigglesworth (conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 10.03.2015 (CC)

IMAGE (c) ROH. photo by Clive Barda
 (c) ROH. photo by Clive Barda

Leocadia Begbick:Anne Sofie von Otter
Trinity Moses: Willard White
Jenny: Christine Rice
Jimmy McIntyre: Kurt Streit
Jack O’ Brien: Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Alaska Wolf Joe: Neal Davies
Bank Account Bill: Darren Jeffrey
Bar Pianist: Robert Clark
Six Girls: Anna Burford, Lauren Fagan, Anush Hovhannisyan, Stephanie Marshall, Meeta Raval, Harriet Williams


This was the first ever performance of Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, (performed in English, so the English title is retained in this review) at Covent Garden. English National Opera last tackled it on these shores some twenty years ago. Hearing it in English does rather rob it of something of its core essence, despite the excellence of Jeremy Sams’ translation.

Balancing this is the fact that something of the essence of the opera is there before one even hands over one’s ticket. Displays announce that “Making Love, Fighting and Drinking” are “all permitted” (I wonder if the resonance with master occultist Aleister Crowley’s tenet that “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” is intentional?), while prices announced in the “Mahogonny Bar” “may rise again”. It is a nice idea, and immerses us in materialistic elements of the opera before we even take our seats. Memories of trumpeters in spacesuits (Stockhausen’s Donnerstag aus ‘Licht’) in the 1980s came flooding back. The event begins when you cross the threshold of the opera house itself.

The sets (Es Devlin) are centred around over-consumption in the modern world. A huge lorry initially dominates the stage in the earlier part of the evening, containing those who would worship at the foot of the hedonists’ temple of the city of Mahagonny (although possibly with resonances of asylum seekers hidden in trucks who seek to find a new life in a promised land). The second part is dominated by stacked containers onto which slogans and ‘headings’ can be projected. Video projections (Finn Ross) are used with stunning artistry and slickness throughout, as are voice-overs. Director John Fulljames’ attempt to take a score which is frankly uneven, mixing the inspired with passages of filling, and weave from it a story that moves the listener is a brave one, and one that ultimately succeeds. There are so many felicitous touches: for example, one wonders whether references to the emotionless Observers in the cult science-fiction show Fringe are obliquely referenced in the chorus of bowler hatted, uniformly dressed gentlemen. The Royal Opera Chorus itself is world-class, revelling in the opportunities to let its hair down yet, thanks to the training of Renato Balsadonna, never losing its tightness of ensemble or its mighty tone. The nod towards the soldiers’ Snoring Chorus in Berg’s Wozzeck is superbly done.

So much hinges on the conductor’s understanding of Weill’s heady soundworld, a harmonic and melodic language that is instantly recognisable but versatile enough to stretch from the crooning of Moon of Alabama through to the Hindemithian asceticism of some of the writing. Mark Wigglesworth has shown his mettle on numerous occasions, and his accurate yet expressive beat inspired the Covent Garden Orchestra to one of the finest performances I have heard. Ensemble was spot-on much of the time (it needs to be in this music), and the spirit of the gutsy opening was perfectly caught. Wigglesworth also let the music breathe, although at times arguably too much so. The on-stage band, too, was exemplary in capturing the spirit of the music, particularly “bar pianist” Robert Clark. Wigglesworth’s tenure at ENO begins in September this year. It would appear we have much to look forward to.

The big names in the cast must have contributed to the full house, too. Anne Sofie von Otter is a good but not entirely convincing Leocadia Begbick, a controlling character that in von Otter’s hands is perhaps not as believably manipulative and commanding as the part demands. As Moses, Willard White is on fine vocal form, while Kurt Streit is an eminently believable Jimmy McIntyre. It is Christine Rice’s Jenny that is perhaps most affecting. She seems to give more of herself that the remainder of the characters.

As Jack O’Brien, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts manages a very creditable Mr Creosote impression as he eats his way to his own death, while Neal Davies is an amusing, and well sung Alaska Wolf Joe, bespectacled and puny in his stature, which makes the fight scene, with its preternaturally large boxing glove, one of the comedic highlights of the evening.

On the subject of which there is, perhaps, too little to overtly laugh about in this production, it is Weill’s music that adds the bitter tang, and while the effects of hedonism can and often do have unfortunate and tragic consequences, in Weill and Brecht’s hands there is plenty of ironic fun to be had. 1930s Berliner lampooning is a thing of joy because of the very serious import of the concepts and events it can examine; the frisson between the two is vital.

Nevertheless this is a fascinating evening, oddly satisfying while reminding us of the imperfect nature of the piece and, indeed, contemporary society itself.

Colin Clarke