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.