Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is a work which not only satirizes the love of money – although hardly as the root of all evil – but was also intended to “pay conscious tribute to the senselessness of the operatic form” – one might therefore be forgiven for thinking that it’s no surprise that this was the first ever outing for this Weill / Brecht piece at the Royal Opera House. Weill called it “a parable of contemporary life” and in John Fulljames’ production it is this aspect which is the most obvious dramatic focus.
The city of Mahagonny is in ‘Amerika,’ a place rooted in the notion of the ‘American Dream’ but having more in common with the kind of feeling expressed by Paul Simon’s notion that “We’ve all come to look for America” than with either the poetic aspirations of The Great Gatsby or the disappointed pioneer spirit of Death of a Salesman. This is a harsh, unyielding, brutal world in which love, as generally seen in opera, barely exists, and Es Devlin’s design gives it stunning visual realization in a world of container lorries either disgorging their human cargo or piled up awaiting shipment, coupled with brightly-lit dance and sex scenes for which the word ‘tawdry’ might have been invented.
The house has done it proud with a fine cast, including a stand-out performance from Christine Rice in the ‘Lotte Lenya’ role of Jenny – her rich tone, mastery of phrasing and sense of style could hardly be bettered, and she was ably partnered by the Jimmy of the astonishingly youthful Kurt Streit, a tenor whom you might more readily associate with Handel or Mozart. He sang his music with fervour and gave a fine account of his prison and death scene, in what seemed to be a conflation of Christ’s crucifixion and Florestan’s anguish in his dungeon. Given that Jimmy’s lament takes some of its inspiration from ‘In des Lebens frühlingstage’ this was a more logical concept than it might at first seem.
It was such fun to see Neal Davies, his resounding bass so often more associated with thundering out ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound,” as Alaska Wolf Joe; of course we knew he had a sly wit from his priceless Ariodates in ENO’s Xerxes, and this part gave him plenty of scope to build on that. Willard W. White was a solid, roundly characterized Trinity Moses, his rich baritone still resonant, and Peter Hoare sang Fatty with bright tone and the kind of crisp diction so vital in this role.
Anne Sofie von Otter took a little time to get into her vocal stride as Widow Begbick, although her dialogue parts were convincing from the first phrase, and Darren Jeffery’s Bank-Account Bill was similarly impressive in discourse. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts was a sonorous Jack, and Paterson Joseph gripped, and held, our attention as ‘Voice.’ Amongst the smaller roles it was a pleasure to hear Stephanie Marshall making her ROH main stage debut as one of the Girls.
Renato Balsadonna had once again done great work with the chorus, who were as salacious in their bar-room songs as they were sublime in their ‘chorale’ exhorting the populace to stand firm in the face of natural disaster. The orchestra, under the soon to be ENO Musical Director, Mark Wigglesworth, provided a finely judged account of this quixotic score, one which can at times descend into something approaching banality but when played with the kind of commitment in evidence here, tends to convince that you want to hear it more often. The video design, by Finn Ross, and Arthur Pita’s choreography, display the same sense of assurance and authenticity.
In many ways, the work is a kind of reversal of the expectations of someone versed in, say, Handel or Mozart opera – there’s no deep and passionate love, no family conflict, no reconciliation, and certainly no sense of order restored by virtue of love and forgiveness. Whereas the ending of Le Nozze di Figaro finds the assembled principals and chorus singing “Ah, tutti contenti, saremo cosi” the closing sentiment of Mahagonny is that “Nothing can be done to help the living.”