Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Libretto by Bertolt Brecht, translation by David Drew and Michael Geliot, Music by Kurt Weill. Directed by Doug Fitch.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"As you make your bed, so you must lie..."
Unlikely bedfellows, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, wrote together in Berlin in the era that gave-way to Nazi Germany. Their most successful collaboration, "The Threepenny Opera," put them on the world’s map. This opera, their second attempt at creating a Mahagonny vehicle, caused a rift in their relationship and a rift in the world’s appreciation of the talents of the composer. Ever after there have been two camps: the Broadway Weill and the pre-Broadway Weill supporters. Every time I see or listen to Mahagonny I am more and more convinced that there is no split in his creative style, no internal rift as he is torn from European tradition and plunked down in an American one. There is one Weill and that one is a master, a supreme being in music creating a world of his own, unlike any that preceded him or any that would follow.
In this opera, just presented by the Tanglewood Music Center Vocal Fellows and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, Weill takes the most unlikeable characters Brecht could create: thieves, murderers, prostitutes, the destitute and the foolish, people who have become disenfranchised from the mainstream, and musically converts them into sympathetic, human beings with foibles that can only be expressed with a vocalism that opens up their inner spirits, exposing them to the world. He wrote tuneful, exuberant pieces for his four protagonists, wood-cutters from Alaska, who come to vacation in the newly created pleasure-town of Mahagonny. By the end of the opera all but one of them are dead - including the romantic hero (if he can actually be called such a thing) Jimmy Mahoney.
He wrote sensual music for his prostitute in chief, Jenny Smith from Havana, including two of his most enduring sing-along hits "O, Moon of Alabama" and "As You Make Your Bed..." songs that have made to the pop market on more than one occasion and can even be heard in big city elevators from time to time.
However, it is the occasions when Jimmy and Jenny are together alone and sing with a plaintive strain in their voices about their sexual preferences, their romantic allusions to the brief lives of birds who fly together, or to the impending widowhood of the abandoned mistress, that this work digs into the heart of romance, the fleeting imagery of love, the pain that is caused by commitment. It is the music here, and not the words, that count the most for in the orchestra and in the voices of the two singers lies the humanity in these two people.
On stage at Tanglewood a wonderful young company has been performing this amazing transitional work. Steven Ebel, the Jimmy, and Rebecca Jo Loeb, the Jenny, directed by Doug Fitch have taken those moments when no one can intrude on their dispassionate devotions and made them into something overpowering. Both the lyricism in their lovely voices and the physical disconnections they’ve been directed to play provided moments of absolute perfection.
As Widow Begbick, leader of the crooks who create this evil town, Christin-Marie Hill turns in a powerful vocal performance underscored by long, sharp movements that complete define this character. She is aided in no small measure by Alex Richardson as Fatty the Bookkeeper who was almost her match and by Jonathan Beyer as Trinity Moses, although vocally he was not up to the other two in this hard-assed trio.
Jimmy’s friends were just wonderful both in voice and acting. Mischa Bouvier was exceptional as Moneybags Billy, while Adam Sattley’s Jacob Schmidt ate himself to death with musical supremacy and Evan M. Boyer’s Alaska Wolf Joe died fighting with remarkable vocal strength. Their trio singing as they try to persuade Jimmy that Mahagonny is just perfection was, itself, just perfection.
Director Doug Fitch also designed the production which worked better than most I’ve seen, including the one at the Metropolitan Opera. This is the twelfth production of this work that I have attended, including the western hemisphere premiere in Stratford, Ontario back in the 1960s, and I’ve watched concepts come and go. It seems almost a crime that this company had only three chances to show off what Fitch, and the brilliant young conductor Erik Nielsen, had to offer.
There is little to add except that if Tanglewood was smart enough to film this production they could easily market it and make a tiny fortune (tiny only because this work is not yet the accepted equivalent of a Turandot, for example) with it. I’d buy it certainly, and probably several copies to give as gifts to people who scoff at this work. One of the great 20th century masterpieces, it deserves productions like this one, insightful, musically brilliant, well presented.