Cher Public

Nothing but nets

This 2010 DVD of Brecht and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny from Madrid assumes pride of place among the available video versions of the opera.  With stage direction by Alex Olle and Carlos Padrissa of the La Fura dels Baus company, the work achieves an almost ideal realization.

This troupe is a Catalan theatrical company known for its gritty urban aesthetic, use of provocative settings and blurring of the so-called fourth wall.  In contrast to the overly faithful, flatly literal, almost “riesumazione” approach adopted by John Dexter for his Met production, the Madrid performance is visually and intellectually engaging.  

Olle and Padrissa have set the opera in a giant landfill, with mountains of plastic garbage bags and other waste products.  Widow Begbick emerges from a discarded refrigerator and her accomplices crawl out from under stained mattresses.  Jenny and the girls of Mahagonny make their first appearance looking like nuclear mutants from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, receiving a cursory makeover from the town’s founders before being marketed for sale.  The implication seems to be that all human endeavors end in the trash heap:  it is mankind and not the roach which seem destined to survive annihilation, squirming fitfully back into life only to propel itself once again toward destruction.

Measha Brueggergosman is cast against type as Jenny and it pays off splendidly.  She is not the waif-like tramp so famously embodied by Lotte Lenya and Teresa Stratas but an Amazonian adventuress confident in her appeal.  She bears more than a passing resemblance to Grace Jones and her big, bosomy frame is attractively contained in a patterned body stocking.  A responsive actress, she is riveting during her farewell to Jim with silent tears streaming down her face.  Her singing is perfectly adequate in this context but I had a hard time extrapolating from this performance what a more representative repertoire might be for her.

Jane Henschel is a spectacular Begbick:  authoritatively butch yet capable of tremendous vocal subtlety.  She lavishes a wealth of nuance on the role and extracts more detail and finesse from the music than I thought possible.  Donald Kaasch is her equal as Fatty, inhabiting the sleaze-factor of his role with both relish and precision.  Willard White completes the criminal trio as Trinity Moses, bestowing an incongruous but fascinating stature and nobility on the character.  All three are preferable to their counterparts on the competing Met DVD, who seem self-conscious and geriatric in comparison.

Michael Koenig is a superb Jim MacIntyre, fully capturing the restlessness and discontent with contentment that are at the heart of the character.  Like Brueggergossman, his singing is capable and fluent but not particularly memorable.

Among the rest, John Easterlin’s Jack O’Brien has a goofy, Mo Rocca-like appeal (he doubles as Toby Higgins after Jack’s demise).  Otto Katzameier is properly unfeeling as Bank-Account Bill.  Pablo Heras-Casado leads the forces of the Teatro Real with complete mastery of the score and cozy familiarity with all its clever, ironic associations.  He tempers the culinary passages with an abrasive edge largely missing from James Levine’s overly Romantic approach to the piece.

In summary, a stimulating, thought-provoking and ultimately disturbing rendering of a work whose creators intended to mirror the horror and futility of modern life.  No other production comes close to suggesting what sparked those despairing riots at the opera’s world premiere.

  • I have not heard it mentioned here so if I missed it my apologies. Soprano Elizabeth Connel had died. You can find a new item here


    • CruzSF

      Lindoro, about 5 or 6 others have mentioned Connell’s passing. She was much beloved, so it doesn’t hurt to remember her again with another clip. May she rest in peace.

  • Enzo Bordello

    No it doesn’t hurt to remember La Connell--except when the tributes are a complete non sequitur in their present location. In future, please use the “intermission” forum that La Cieca provided for just such a purpose.

    • Baltsamic Vinaigrette

      Well, I am grateful for your review Enzo. I had the pleasure of seeing Ollé’s new Tristan and Isolde in Lyon last June and will happily seek out the Weill.

    • Well, given how the intermission feature was not posted until after the comment was posted, I would say it was virtually impossible to do that.

      That being said, get over it, Not the first something off topic is raised in a threat. We deal with it and move on.

  • A. Poggia Turra

    Although I realize I don’t have the erudition, writing talent or learned insights of Mr. Bordello, I did happen to be in the audience at the Teatro Real on the night this DVD was filmed, and so, here were my unsophisticated reactions:

    Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny
    Teatro Real, Madrid
    30 September 2010

    “Life, and Death, in a (literal and figurative) Throwaway Society”

    It has taken me ten productions of ‘Mahagonny’ to encounter a production team which has recognized the denizens of the ‘City of Nets’ for what they are -- the dregs, the throwaways of society. Even the temporarily wealthy lumberjacks eventually descend to their base qualities (with the exception of Jim, whose nobility comes to the fore when it’s too late to change his fate.

    The Fura dels Baus team set Weill and Brecht’s work on, in and around a massive city dump; the players emerged from amongst the trash bags and other refuse. The principals and the chorus are at all times accompanied by a large group of other-worldly, permanent residents of the dump. Clad in brown body suits, they act as impromptu stagehands, position scenery when needed, and also interact with the lead characters as needed. One gets the feeling that they will survive the current leadership and will still be living at the dump when the next gang of misfits and con-artists show up.

    At their entrance, Jenny and the girls of Mahagonny, stripped down to their essential undergarments, fish through the garbage for recycled clothing. The four men from Alaska stand out, dressed in grey suits, white shirts and black ties. The fact that their clothing is not finely tailored subtly gives support to the notion that their attempt to elevate their social standing is temporal, at best.

    Midway through the first act (“That’s what I call eternal art”), the dump-men roll out wide expanses of Astroturf, converting the dump (at least for a while) into an ersatz golf course. However, the dump remains visible on the periphery, a constant reminder of the decay and deceit at the underlying core of Mahagonny. Within this omnipresent milieu, the production team makes clever use of groupings of long and short tables, which serve as anything from playing platforms to (turned on their sides) hurricane barricades.

    The post-hurricane scenes are a hoot; Eating is performed with the chorus seated behind a giant stainless steel trough, frenetically feeding as a giant industrial feed dispenser deposits unending food into the troughs (it is like the Las Vegas buffet of one’s nightmares.). The dump becomes a platform for a wild Loving scene; an expanded corps of ‘Mahagonny Girls” place discarded mattresses across the stage, then are paired off with a male chorus member; the stylized PG-rated simulated sex(perfectly in time with Weill’s catchy rhythm) resembles something out of a Woody Allen-esque sexual pageant. In Fighting, the two protagonists engaged in a Fisher v. Spasky-style chess match before their boxing match; I have to admit being nonplussed over that one.

    As Jimmy fatefully informs Begbick that he has no money left with which to pay his bar tab, the long tables are deployed into a catwalk stage-center, allowing Jenny to deliver her refrain of “As you make your bed” as a cabaret number, perfectly matching the music, of course, but also subconsciously marking her independence, both from Jim and from anyone else ­ the ultimate loner/survivor’s anthem.

    After a searing rendition of ‘The Nights’, the trial scene plays as a circus, metaphorical and even literally as Fatty adopts a Bozo-style clown mask and floppy shows ­ he even performs a soft-shoe using his using his crutch as a dancer’s cane. Toby Higgins, having paid for his freedom, pulls out his iPhone to snap a photo of himself posing with his former accusers (no doubt the snapshot was on Toby’s Facebook page before the opera was over).

    Jim’s goodbye was especially emotional (although Jenny was more of a bystander than would be expected. Jim’s execution (the mattresses from ‘Loving’ now forming a funeral pyre) and the ‘God came to Mahagonny’ scene were staged as a well-integrated whole. The finale was spectacular, with the principals stage front and the whole expanse of the dump used to display vivid red and black protest banners (the fact that Spain had undergone a general strike the day before the performance made the scene even more poignant than usual).

    The production was given in an English translation by Michael Feingold (universal Edition, I’m not sure how old it is, but it sang very well. Also not explained is why it was performed in English (considering that the co-producer is in a German-speaking country).

    The musical values were very high, and with the exception(s) noted below, this was the best overall singing of the now ten Mahagonny productions I have seen in the theater. Everyone sang the translation with perfect American accents, making for a very idiomatic performance.

    I didn’t think that anyone would ever top Richard Cassilly’ landmark Jim from the Met in 1979; however, I think that Michael König has done just that. His was a complete performance; effortless strain-free singing, and completely inside the character from his first note. He was shattering in the third act.

    Jane Henschel’s Widow Begbick also ranks at the top of this very accomplished list of singers ­ she blends the ‘don’t mess with me’ brass of Astrid Varnay with singing that revealed Weill’s score for its sheer melodic beauty. This role is sometimes cast with a declining singer or with a non-operatic actress such as Ms. LuPone; the complete opposite is needed, a major voice in its prime, and we were lucky to have that in Ms. Henschel tonight. Ms. Henschel avoided a ‘hag’ characterization ­ she portrayed a “tough bird” that may do grotesque things ­ but she is not a grotesque; Ms. Henschel skillfully presented the former, and not the latter.

    Sir Willard White and Donald Kaasch were both in fine voice (Sir Willard was more sonorous than booming, to excellent effect). Both and were completely into their characterizations (especially Kaasch).

    Measha Brueggergosman took a while to warm up (‘O Moon of Alabama’ was tentative and a little under voiced). By the second act, however, the voice was in full, radiant bloom. Unlike the talented Audra McDonald in Los Angeles, the production team and Ms. Brueggergosman presented Jenny’s arias and choruses as an integral part of who the character was, not as ‘show tune show stoppers ‘.

    Jim’s three companions were all given strong characterizations, with John Easterlin’s Jack O’Brien providing beautiful diction and a humorous contrast to the grimness elsewhere, and Otto Katzameier added a portrait of a conflicted, obsessed friend who could reach out to offer help when someone close to him needed it so badly.

    My major complaint with the performance was with some of the musical choices made by Mr. Heras-Casado. The overall standard of musical playing was not in question -Weill’s score emerged with its beauty and emotional wallop intact, textures were exquisite and the detailed solo voices in the orchestra were breathtaking at times (special kudos to the saxophone and oboe sections). But it may have been a case of too much of a good thing ­ the thrust and drive of Weill’s meticulously laid-out sound palette too often were allowed to wallow in the sheer beauty of the line.

    Some of the speeds in Act One were a little too lyrical and expansive ­ not Harnoncourt-glacial, but detracting nonetheless. And this was certain sections of Act One (“Hold Me Back”) seeming too placid, considering what was happening on the stage at the time. Hopefully, this situation should improve as the run continue.

    One thing that I will heavily criticize Mr. Heras-Cassado for is the cutting of the Crane Duet; not only because it is so beautiful, but because it drives home the elemental quality that draws Jim and Jenny together. That neither Jim nor Jenny seem to grasp this, and allow the other to slip out of their mutual grass, is maybe the true “greatest crime in the world that we live in”.

    • Rowna

      I loved your review. And your Parterre Box name. Between the 2 reviews -- if someone asked for my opinion (and why would anyone do that) I would say yours contained:
      1. excellent writing skills
      2. opinions based on knowledge
      3. an overall style that makes the reader want to continue to digest every word and not glance over the text just to finish the article
      4. a clear sense of how this production stands up to its predecessors
      The Bordello review contained
      1. words, and opinions/ideas
      If I may call you by a nickname -- you get a big thumbs up by me, Turra!

    • cosmodimontevergine

      I think Michael Feingold made some diabolical deal with the Weill Foundation (or whoever has the rights) that they only allow his translation to be produced. Not that the translation is all that bad but doing the piece in English vitiates the point of the “American” songs amidst the German text.

  • Enzo Bordello

    Upstaging, insult and the non-sequitur. True gratification for the unpaid PB reviewer.

    • armerjacquino

      Amazing, isn’t it? No manners.

      Still, you’ve escaped the usual beasting and criticism handed out to guest reviewers, so that’s something. Thanks for your well-written and informative review.

    • cosmodimontevergine

      I enjoyed Enzo’s review but more important I ordered the DVD.

    • Camille

      “…Enzo. Adorato!
      Ah, come t’amo………!”

    • oedipe


      Thanks for the review and don’t take the rude reception too much to heart. If that’s any consolation, Mahagonny seems to have some sort of curse attached to it, so it could have been worse, like it apparently was on Friday night at a performance of the work at the Gärtnerplatz Theatre in Munich (in a different staging though).
      First mishap, an elderly gentleman in the audience had a heart attack and had to be taken to a hospital; next, somebody from the theater came to announce that one of the singers had a throat infection and will have to be miked; then, the same representative came out again to say that another member of the cast had fallen ill with diarrhea and vomiting; finally, a fire started smoldering on stage and a fire curtain came down; while waiting for the firemen to arrive, the same representative came out one more time to tell the audience that the fire was NOT part of the production…

      • Enzo Bordello

        Thanks, Oedipe. Regarding the Gaertnerplatz, I saw a wonderful--and far less calmitous--staging of von Suppe’s BOCCACCIO there a few years ago.

      • iltenoredigrazia

        Some of that sounds like a case of too much information.

  • jim

    Actually, I very much liked the Dexter production for the Met. Cassily, Stratas, Varnay and Plishka all sang very well and the final scene, with the bare Met stage opened all the way to the back wall had a massive impact in the house (i imagine it works less well on DVD). Yes, Levine wasn’t the ideal conductor, but if not for him they wouldn’t have done it at all, so one made allowances.

    • Porgy Amor

      I think some of its impact carried over on the small screen, Jim. I liked that MAHOGANNY too. Dexter was in the right place and time, and his famous Met productions now seem a bit safety-first to us, but the best of them are sturdy theater, intelligently worked out and with good judgment re: “effects.”

  • Nerva Nelli

    Thanks, Enzo.

    I saw this one and largely agree. I did laugh when Measha emerged from the garbage heap in full glam make-up…

    Also, John Easterlin’s Jack O’Brien must be the hammiest piece of high schoolish HEY,LOOKAME acting ever recorded on film.

  • Dear Enzo,

    thank you for your wonderful review, with which I agree 100 percent. I have had this DVD for quite a while now. IMO a very difficult piece to bring off, and the cast & crew have succeeded brilliantly. Not much to be done for the 1st act though. An interminable bore if ever there was one.