Turns out that show is almost never en décalage avec son temps.
Non, the bigger offense was kicking off its lineup on Tuesday with a world-premiere staging of the beloved Brecht/Hauptmann/Weill opus that featured not one, but two gaping voids at its center. First, there was Thomas Ostermeier’s spiceless production, that dove so deep into precedent – and gave the audience so little new – that it surfaced and sputtered with nary a point of view of its own.
Then there was the show’s Macheath, Birane Ba, one of the limpest, most wet-weekend portrayals in recent memory: a knife you’d have to saw on to slice through butter.
This was all a surprise and should not have been. The Festival d’Aix had joined forces with the venerable Comédie-Française for this premiere, and one had the sense going in that they’d spared no expense in lavishing the socialist ballad-opera with an Old Bailey’s Prison worth of novelty.
Acclaimed translator Alexandre Pateau’s new translation serves up gallicisms that don’t quite match the smut, sass, and excreta of the original but still find catchy workarounds for some of the creakier honorifics. Our knife-wielding antihero Macheath thus becomes “Mac-la-Lame” (Mac the Blade) instead of the foregoing “Mackie le Surineur” (Mack the Cutthroat). Herr Peachum, the corrupt boss of London’s beggars, is rechristened as the far slangier “roi des clodos,” or king of the bums. And Peachum’s flinty daughter Polly, who marries his arch-nemesis in the first act, refers to herself as “la bombe de Soho” – a dexterous touch that smartly encapsulates her essential brattiness. (The original title from the work’s 1930 Paris premiere, L’Opéra de Quat’sous, is retained, as is its four-penny conversion rate for French mendicants.)
Top-shelf conductor Maxime Pascal touched down in Provence with a dozen instrumentalists from his ensemble Le Balcon to interpret the earworm-packed Weill score, and to revive a forgotten ditty (“Pauv’ Madam Peachum”) originally intended for the 1937 French revival – all this in preparation for a new live album to be released when the show reaches the Comédie-Française in September.
And perhaps most drum-rolled of all, Ostermeier – himself a Brechtian, fourth wall–breaking regisseur who’d made his name schpritzing the classics with gritty psychological realism for the Berlin Schaubühne (e.g. his German-language Hamlet, which The New York Times dismissed as a “spectacle of spit, dirt and trash” when it hit BAM last year) – was to try his luck at musical theater.
A rare step out of the director’s straight-play comfort zone, Quat’sous seemed like just the safe space he needed, one that could at once honor his commitment to Brecht’s dialectical realism – peppering das Immerige of immutable naturalism with society’s inexorable need for change – and provide a fun testing ground for Weill’s wilder impulses, with all those opera seria pastiches and bar songs.
The first hint that Ostermeier was about to choke on all of it came like a ripple, when attendees learned, as they were filing in for the 22h start time, that they were in for a 2.5-hour slog on Aix’s ligneous folding chairs with no intermission and no breaks pour faire pipi between the show’s deliberate eight tableaux.
The second feu rouge came as soon as they caught sight of the sets. With designs by Magda Willi, here was something that already felt preemptively fusty, with a raised platform in back and four microphones upfront, standing by for Lenya’s ghost to come plummeting down from the rafters like a Weimar Fruma Sarah.
It got worse as the show moved, with Kentridge-style collage projections to submerse the clever symbolism of the lyrics in a watery grave of dead-horse-beatingly literal iconography: Song about the “Vicissitudes des rapports humains” to end Act I? Cue the revolutionary fists and union imagery. Moon over Soho? You guessed it, there’s the moon. The Brechtian titles, parading across the stage on screens like news tickers, dared the audience to juggle focus between them, the French-English subtitles, and the action.
A bold social indictment that uses song not so much to advance the action as to comment on it, Quatre’sous should give directors a stage to make their own statements, to weigh in on what’s happening, to craft their theater. A tactical approach would involve sidestepping the urge to recreate Weimar – or worse, to simply treat this as a kind of pointier and more sardonic Kander and Ebb. Instead, characters are timeless archetypes to be toyed with, dolls engineered to expose spectators to their own moral confusion.
Ostermeier’s approach to the material is to trick his dolls out in funky outfits (costumer Florence von Gerkan has designed a parade of latex slickers and Soul Train-inspired, disco-fetish activewear) and block them as park-and-bark buskers. From the famous opening verses of the Mack the Knife “Complainte” to Polly’s tuneful death fantasy “Jenny-la-Flibuste” to Mrs. Peachum’s “Balade de l’obsession sexuelle” – none of it is given much more than a spotlight and a microphone.
And when the staging departs from the script, it’s either via cuts to important, explanatory sections of dialogue – say between Macheath and his old flame Jenny “la Tripoteuse” in Act II, or in the third act’s long march to the scaffold – or with a few unscripted lines spoken directly to the audience. But these are all uneven ideas lacking organized vision, and Ostermeier’s cuts and additions rarely help viewers make sense of the story, like why Macheath is back in jail.
It’s little wonder that under such guidance, stalwart veterans of the Comédie-Française start losing focus. Spectators can only wistfully imagine the feast they could have made of the Peachums, for instance, especially given their pedigree: Christian Hecq and Véronique Vella are provided little to work with downstage as the colluding Mr. and Mrs. Peachum.
Equally underrealized is Macheath’s trio of rival girlfriends. As the prostitute Jenny, Elsa Lepoivre is a total cipher, strapped unimaginatively into black patent leather kinky boots – get it? she’s a German hooker! – when she’s arguably the show’s most richly crafted character (who gets one of the show’s best songs, the yearning and cynical “Chanson de Solomon” with the haunting “heureux celui qui s’en dispense”). She shrinks from the stage when she should be filling it.
Marie Oppert rules the school as anti-ingenue Polly Peachum, flexing an able singing voice and keen comic instincts during her two big story songs in Act I. In this production she’s inexplicably costumed for Studio 54 with a boho bag and pattes d’eph. And as Lucy, Claïna Clavaron (who warbles through the Complainte at top of show) makes slapstick of the police chief’s wounded daughter, though the voice is underdeveloped.
Nicolas Lormeau is Tiger Brown, the embattled police officer and Macheath’s oldest friend from his army days, in a straight-man performance that could, through a different lens, have easily become one of the more gleefully queer roles. (Though Lormeau did draw the biggest laugh of the night when he accidentally dropped his microphone into the orchestra. “Call the police!” he ad-libbed in French. “Oh wait, I’m already here.”)
Which brings us to Macheath. Birane Ba unfortunately embodied less the “short stocky man of about 40” (Brecht) had in mind and more matinee idol in Dick Tracy drag. Rather than illuminate with his charisma, he seemed to absorb energy, draining momentum from numbers like the “Chanson des canons” (for which Ostermeier, visionarily, rolls out a Howitzer) and all but mumbling on his way to the gallows – “What’s breaking into a bank compared to founding one?” – so that Brecht/Hauptmann’s brawny Marxist epigrams were left hanging in the wind.
Bows at curtain were followed by political torch song from the cast and crew. “Get your weapons ready,” they sang out against the rising fascists of the world. “C’est par leur faute que la Nuit persiste. Et ce sont eux qui font couler les larmes.”
“The theater must free itself from the desire to be always on the right side, and must face reality,” Ostermeier once wrote. “It must from time to time endure realism, telling and re-telling stories about the cruelty of the world and its victims.” The irony, however, is unmistakable. In this latest rendition of L’Opéra de Quat’sous, Ostermeier’s unrelenting commitment to literal realism seems to have eclipsed the very essence of the play’s symbolic and zany heart.
By trying to adhere too rigidly to a bare-bones “reality,” he’s lost the point of the show and ironically missed a fundamental truth about theatre: that it thrives not just on the cruelty and victims of the world, but also on the vitality, empathy, and subversive humor of its characters. One is left longing for a production that not only endures the world’s harsh realities – that’s a story we know too well, just ask the French protesters – but also illuminates its transformative possibilities. Ultimately, Ostermeier must pay the price for his rote reading of the beggar’s opera. Even at four sous, production feels cheap.