The last days of disco
The Met’s 1979 telecast of Mahagonny exposed one of the lesser-known factors contributing to the demise of disco: the global supply of eye shadow, rouge and lip gloss was exhausted for the next decade by a cast featuring Klara Barlow, Louise Wohlafka, Nedda Casei, Gwynn Cornell, Joann Grillo and Isola Jones—and stilettos, garter belts and hairspray were pretty hard to come by, as well! (Ethel Merman had already cleaned New York City out of reinforced girdles, so the Met was left to its own devices.)
Kidding aside, the roller-brush makeup is emblematic of the whole: the trappings of Weimar decadence and despair uncomfortably scaled for the grandeur of an opera house and its conservative audience.
Brecht and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny was intended by its creators to be both entertaining and “an experience.” It is bitter medicine disguised in a coating of beguiling sweetness: existential musings on mankind’s elusive search for fulfillment are expressed through the glittering idioms of 1920’s German cabaret and American jazz. Vicious behavior is depicted in music of smiling irony and languorous apathy. It typifies Brecht’s attempt at alienating the viewer from his emotional identification with the drama and its players.
This unnerving duality sparked a riot at the work’s premiere and it continues to disturb today. Set in the imaginary American city of Mahagonny (or “town of nets”), the opera is an allegory about the corrosive nature of greed within the dehumanizing context of urban life. Sometimes dismissed as juvenile Marxism, Mahagonny has always had its staunch admirers: no less a scholar than Andrew Porter considered the piece on a political and philosophical par with Wagner’s Ring.
Another duality that continues to rankle is Mahagonny‘s blending of traditional operatic elements with theatrical presentation intended to be revolutionary, abrasive and satirical. The work requires classically trained musicians and singers capable of swing and boogie. Alas, the Met production is woefully lacking in boogie.
John Dexter’s staging and Jocelyn Herbert’s designs are a dutiful recreation of Brecht’s own production blueprint, including the use of a “gardine” or white half-curtain that opens and closes throughout the performance and which also serves as a backdrop for the sardonic placards that precede each scene. A helpful staging device in smaller venues, the Met’s gardine looks like the freshly washed bed sheet of the Jolly Green Giant hung out to dry. The skeletal production is swallowed whole by the huge stage and the performers do not compensate with convincingly lurid characterizations. For the most part, they look like opera singers indicating low life.
The one exception–and it is a major one–is Teresa Stratas as Jenny. Stratas has no trouble “getting down” with the material and unlike the other gilded ladies of Mahagonny, is convincing as a well-practiced street whore. The word “soulful” is overused to describe her work but it fits here. Her characterizations are cabinets with many drawers, all filled with mystery, hidden drama and internal turmoil. Her smoky lyric soprano delivers seductive or tough as required. She manages to be tender and touching without ever crossing the line into sentimentality. This DVD is another welcome document of her unique art and Stratas fans can revel once again in her unparalleled gift for detailed operatic portraiture. This kind of depth and seriousness of purpose are sorely missing from today’s operatic scene, where flash is mistaken for substance.
Richard Cassilly comes close to matching Stratas’ achievement but the anarchic nihilism and questing drive of Jimmy are not consistently developed. His hulking presence and rough-hewn tenor are a good fit with the lumberjack from Alaska. Astrid Varnay, resembling Kaye Ballard in whiteface, sports an enormous wobble and fierce tone but still commands impressive reserves of vocal power. As Leocadia Begbick, she is game enough to let herself appear ridiculous but misses the menace and dangerous edge of the character.
Cornell MacNeil and Ragnar Ulfung make an earnest effort to inhabit their roles as Begbick’s accomplices in crime but they look self-conscious and embarrassed by the material. The same applies to Paul Plishka, Arturo Sergi and Vern Shinall as Jimmy’s fellow lumberjacks. The six “girls” feature luxury casting of a sort but only the busty Jones convinces as a tough-as-nails prostitute making her way in a brutal world.
This DVD is part of a set commemorating the 40th anniversary of James Levine’s Met debut and it is he who supplies the other distinctive contribution to this disappointing performance. Like his approach to Berg’s Lulu, Levine accentuates the sensuous, lyric elements of the score and integrates them successfully with the score’s biting harmonies. The accordion, zither, guitar, banjo, saxophone and other unconventional instruments are given their luscious due without compromising the essentially stark character of the music. The Bach-like fugue that heralds the arrival of a hurricane is played expertly by the Met forces and demonstrates the complex musical ingredients necessary for a successful realization of the opera.
In summary, the production is a noble failure much too tame for its own good. It is worth sampling, however, for the work of Levine and one of his self-declared muses, the ever-fascinating Stratas.