Cher Public

The last days of disco

Stratas_thumbThe 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.

  • Orlando Furioso

    Is any production of Mahagonny not a failure? I’ve seen 3 productions in venues of differing size and audience, and it’s always the same — well-crafted music, a great deal of it insidiously catchy and memorable… but what’s the point of the opera? It’s one damn thing after another (now Mahagonny allows everything, now nothing, whatever will set up the next scene; it’s no accident that the order of scenes can be changed without affecting any plot logic, as there isn’t any).

    If someone has seen it come off compellingly somewhere, I’ll listen respectfully and believe it. But in my experience, it’s always a mess. (This includes extrapolating from recordings too.) I’m always happy to hear Weill, but there are times when I wonder what Brecht’s reputation is based on.

    I tried watching my own copy of this DVD yesterday, recalling how that long-ago telecast struck me. Yes, Stratas shines (and the chance to let her do so may justify the effort at putting it on the Met stage). But what is this piece anyway?

    • Harry

      Mahagonny: is a metaphor for the puzzling mosaic cruel, confusing and exploitative contradictions of Life itself, that beset people in their various dealings with others. Some situations are at times amusing, yet at other times might be outrageous or even savagely inhumane in the extreme. We as an audience are asked to ‘react’ and form our own opinions, and not necessarily ‘simply accept’ as we would, another opera. The most effective way of accepting the moral points it makes: is taking it from the vantage standpoint ‘of an innocent- venturing into its toxic atmosphere’.

      Then there is Gay’s The Beggars Opera, whose plot -over time has been adjusted, used and pulled around, down through the last two Centuries.

      Did not Hogarth, with both his ‘Marriage a la Mode’ and ‘Rake’s Progress’ make a similar act of social observance? Admittedly, these two pieces, are much more sharply honed with a strong degree of ordered focus; backed up with a sequential series of telling illustrations.

      Remember too, slightly OT: that Stratas nursed Lotte Lenya (Weill’s widow) in her latter days and Lenya released to her, the so called ‘Unknown Kurt Weill Songs’ which Stratas later recorded.

  • richard

    Does this DVD have any of the intermission stuff?
    As I remember from the telecast there was an interview with Lotte Lenya, who as Harry noted above, had been taken under the care of Stratas.
    Lenya was a bit hesitant but it would be nice to see that interview with her. She died just a few years later.

  • WindyCityOperaman

    I always felt bad for Klara Barlow who went from Isolde as a last-minute Nilsson substitute (she already done the part at Spoletto) and getting great notices to playing one of the hookers in Mahagonny. Last saw her as Fata Morgana in a production of Love for Three Oranges here at the Lyric. I think it was a matter of bad breaks and not her voice. Never got the career she should have had. Turned to teaching; I read she passed away a couple of years ago.

    • Orlando Furioso

      Barlow wasn’t the only one in that situation. Kathryn Bouleyn had a pretty good regional career, but her only Met performance under that name was miming Vitellia in a Clemenza performance while an injured Vaness sang from the pit. Then a decade later she made a singing debut there as one of the Mahagonny hookers, under her new mezzo name Kathryn Day. Now she’s doing roles like Annina for them.

    • richard

      I can add a few personal comments on Barlow, who I saw a number of times in the 70s and 80s.

      First, she wasn’t subbing for Nilsson; she was subbing
      for Caterina Ligenza who cancelled because of the flu.
      Erich Leinsdorf tells the story in a lot of detail, some sort of snarky, in his autobiography Cadenza.

      I saw the second Tristan after the dramatic first performance that the New York Times gave her quite a
      great write up about.

      Barlow was very dynamic and charismatic, she wore this glittery sheath type dress, with that and her blond hair she looked like the image of Isolde you imagine but rarely see. She was very, very free and dramatic on stage , moving around very effectively .

      She sang very expressively , I got really caught up in her performance. But it seemed like the first performance was the effort of her life and was on an energy level she couldn’t really sustain. In the second performance, she ran out of voice about an hour into act 1. I was hoping she would reconnect for act 2 but she didn’t. She pretty much limped through the rest of the performance. And I listened to the broadcast, it was pretty much the same, she ran out of gas part way through act 1. The performance I saw she missed both high c’s in act 2, in the broadcast she didn’t attempt them.

      I really felt bad for her, she had all that buzz from the dramatic first performance and what I saw was really , really thrilling for the period she could sustain it. Perhaps the problem was the Met’s size, she had sung Isolde quite a bit in European houses, including Spoletto.

      The Tristan wasn’t her debut, she had covered Fidelio including singing one performance and also had sung a few Donna Annas a few years earlier.

      The rest of her MEt career was sort of sad, I read in an interview that she claimed the MEt made promises they didn’t keep and put her in awkward positions. Who knows really, but the Tristans were followed by MArina in Boris which seemed an odd role for a dramatic soprano. She had cover contracts, I saw her later as a substitute Elektra and it really wasn’t too successful .

      And of course she ended it with the small role in Mahagonny .

      I saw her one last time in the late 80s singing in the premiere of an opera based on the life of Frederick Douglass by Ulysses Kay. It wasn’t a happy experience, she didn’t look engaged at all and appeared very distracted, at one point in an ensemble she stopped singing and just sat down on a chair. But who knows what her situation was and what kind of turmoil was connected with a world premiere opera in a small opera company (New Jersey State Opera)

      Like WindyCityOperman, I always felt bad for Barlow, I heard her do a fine Mathilde in a chaotic OONY William Tell in 1972 and the Tristan offered a glimpse of a really exciting , special performer.

      But it just didn’t work out. I suspect the story was very complicated, perhaps her own limits as a performer as well as the miserable mess of the Chapin years at the Met.

      • Baritenor

        Is it possible she was covering for Varnay or Stratus, and that’s why she played the smaller role? Covering is a good gig…

        • richard

          Well, Julia Migenes sang a couple of Jennys so I assume she was Stratas’ cover. But maybe Barlow was second cover for Jenny.

          Covering for Stratas must have been nerve-racking. When the Met revived Mahagonny the following season, there were 16 performances in NYC and on tour. Stratas sang the first performance only, then cancelled the rest of the run. Ariel Bybee picked up most of the cancelled performances.Peggy Bouveret must have been second cover that season as she ended up singing two of the tour performances.

  • actfive

    I was working for the Met Ticket Service when MAHAGONNY opened. We made up a little ditty:

    We;re going to MAHAGONNY
    We’ll probably sit alone-y
    MAHAGONNY’s really neat
    It’s in English--what a treat!
    You can ALWAYS find a seat!
    Hooray! For MAHAGONNY!