Thanks to the combined forces of Melbourne Opera and IOpera, a second Kurt Weill/ Berthold Brecht collaboration has now been presented to Melbourne audiences within a month. Some of those who attended Victorian Opera’s production of Happy End wondered whether this work could really be classified as an opera; in the case of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny no such question arose.
As rehearsals were underway for the original production, premiered in Weimar Republic Leipzig in March 1930, Weill wrote: “The work we intend to produce is not going to make use of contemporary material that will be out of date in a year’s time but sets out to present our age in a definitive form. Its influence will thus extend far beyond the moment in which it is written”. It is 40 years since this masterpiece of twentieth century opera was given a major Australian production, enabling today’s audiences to judge its relevance. Are we living in our own version of Mahagonny – a city where poverty attracts the death penalty, a society where self-indulgence and consumerism are the order of the day? The manner in which Melbourne Opera’s production is framed suggests that we might well be.
Video artist Chris Hocking has devised material in keeping with Brecht’s theatrical style of alienation, shifting between scratched movie reel sequences such as the opening title, cartoon animation and real life footage of recent disasters, where nature and man together together have caused untold damage. The beginning of Act II was expertly handled as a weather map video graphically traced the course of a hurricane heading towards Mahagonny during the orchestral introduction.
Suzanne Chaundy’s inventive direction (and presumably set design, since a separate set designer is not listed in the program) is coherently integrated into this approach. Props were quickly whisked off the stage between the 20 scenes that comprise this three-act opera, with a rather shabby whitish drop curtain – in line with “poor theatre” production values – hiding many stage resets. The first reveal, following a cartoon video of the journey of the three criminals on the run, made little attempt to show a real vehicle. Instead, it was a broken down tray truck at one remove from reality, with the men’s attempts to fix it cartoonishly inept. Stranded in the desert, the trio of Leokadja Begbick (Liane Keegan), Trinity Moses (Christopher Hillier) and Fatty “The Procurer” (Robert Macfarlane) improbably agreed to establish “the city of nets”: Mahagonny.
There was certainly nothing inept about the singing though; all three gave exceptionally powerful vocal performances. Exaggerated physicality, especially on the part of Macfarlane, added to the sense that they were revelling in the excesses of their creations. In addition to being a fine tenor, Macfarlane demonstrated some skill on the banjo as he and Joe Chindamo on accordion accompanied the confronting scene where lumberjack Jack O’Brien (Fraser Findlay) eats himself to death as part of excessive, but ultimately unfulfilling, consumption after the hurricane threat has passed. Despite his naturally small physique, appropriate costuming and expressive singing made this an horrifically compelling moment. It was a far cry from the entrance of the four cashed-up lumberjacks: Jimmy McIntyre (James Egglestone), “Bank Account” Billy (Christopher Tonkin), “Alaska Wolf” Joe and O’Brien, drawn to the pleasures of Mahagonny. Individually and as a quartet, they were superb. In the central role of Jimmy, Egglestone captured the anger and pathos of a character who tries to love while loathing a system that eventually condemns him to death by the circus of a corrupt kangaroo court. The crime of not having money to pay a debt is considered much worse than killing somebody, especially if you can bribe the judge, namely Begbick, and her associate Moses.
Apart from his friends for whom he feels a special bond stemming from seven years of hard, cold labour in Alaska, Jimmy’s affections centre on Jenny Hill (Antoinette Halloran), one of the prostitutes drawn to the city. In the event, both Billy and Jenny betray him in his hour of need and his fate becomes a kind of parody of Christ’s passion. Whatever ambiguities there might be in the character of Jimmy, Egglestone’s performance was simply outstanding. It is a difficult role that requires a strong vocal technique, a high degree of musicality and a wide emotional range – all of which Egglestone possesses. It is tempting to say that it is worth seeing this production just for his performance, but this might imply that other performances and the work as a whole are less worthy, which is far from being the case.
Halloran’s interpretation emphasised the duplicitous nature of Jenny, notably in her eagerness to abandon Jimmy for a now slicker, more self-interested Billy, sung with admirable vitality by Tonkin. It was simultaneously amusing and repellent. Blessed with voluptuous physical beauty, Halloran was a knowing Jenny, giving the audience a conspiratorial wink as she used her charms in the pursuit of personal gain. Her strong soprano was well projected and she took care to make the words as clear as possible. The famous “Alabama” song was delivered with sensuous allure.
The young singers forming the group of six prostitutes were vocally spot on and provided exactly the array of attributes appealing to all tastes – exotic, curvaceous or child-like – alluded to in the libretto. “Poor theatre” seemed to vanish as Mahagonny became temporarily more affluent and the girls were decked out in Jason Chalmers’ enticing costumes. The Melbourne Opera Chorus was in fine form, especially in the chorale sections, which were precise and well blended.
Peter Tregear drew impressive playing from the orchestra – stylish and crisp. Joe Chindamo’s onstage appearances included a suitably sentimental piano highlight and there was some stirring work from the trumpets. Although all singers were obviously keen to deliver excellent diction, it occasionally required a real effort to hear the text clearly through a full orchestral sound. Surtitles might have been a good idea but could have been a distraction from what is an outstanding production.
Melbourne Opera’s realisation of Mahagonny is, on so many levels, not to be missed.
Photo courtesy Melbourne Opera
Heather Leviston reviewed Opera Melbourne’s production of “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”, presented at the Athenaeum Theatre on May1, 2022.