Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
Brueggergosman, Henschel; M. König, White, Kaasch, Easterlin; Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Real, Heras-Casado.
Production: La Fura dels Baus. BelAir Classiques BAC467 (Blu-ray) or BAC067 (DVD), 138 mins., subtitled
This Blu-ray issue derives from September 2010 performances at Madrid's Teatro Real of Weill and Brecht's astringent Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. It makes for quite a good show, with some qualifications. The visuals — long on the garbage piles and ominous mechanical structures that increasingly populate European stagings — come, along with copious dancers and extras, courtesy of La Fura dels Baus, an ambitious and often impressive Catalan artistic collective that has grown prominent in producing opera. The actual directors are Àlex Ollé and Carlus Padrissa.
Oddly, the Spanish chorus sings this German opera in English to a Spanish audience, perhaps with this commercial release in mind. (True, the setting is Brecht's caricatured "America," but we don't expect Ballo or Fanciulla in English.) Two of the principals — Michael König's shambling, often vocally strong Jimmy and Otto Katzameier's rather nondescript Bank-Account Bill — are not native Anglophones but handle the text fairly well. Michael Feingold's translation oddly combines insightful phrasing with perverse choices that cloy or don't scan musically.
Measha Brueggergosman is a sexy, riveting if often self-contained presence as Jenny Smith, emerging from the trash heaps in rags but full glamour makeup. Brueggergosman certainly commands a distinctive tone — sometimes most attractive, sometimes a bit too grainy — and much of what she does here works very well. She tends (as in the "Alabama Song") to wayward phrasing and rhythm, but her performance grows in appeal and conviction over the course of the opera.
The criminal threesome that founds Mahagonny is strongly cast — though Willard White is almost too elegant of diction and demeanor for the seedy Trinity Moses. Jane Henschel, as Begbick, starts a bit too broadly, but she's vocally steady and strong, probably the best exponent of this often screamed part on any recording. Donald Kaasch is marvelous as Fatty the Bookkeeper, crystal clear verbally, amusing and incisive.
When the miners arrive, they sport business suits and carry cell phones like contemporary bond traders. American bass Steven Humes sings very solidly as Alaska-Wolf Joe. Character tenor John Easterlin, singing handily, takes two roles and admirably transforms himself into completely different people. As a puzzlingly thin "Jack O'Brien" (Brecht's Jakob Schmidt), Easterlin puts across every word but mugs self-delightedly, as if anchoring a dinner theater How to Succeed in Business. His simplicity as the bribe-freed murderer Toby Higgins is far more pleasing. Jenny's fellow "girls" are taken by solid choristers, rather than the mettlesome company principals James Levine deployed to back Teresa Stratas's Jenny in the Met's competitive 1979 issue.
The Met set has its pleasures — principally in the brilliant central performances by Stratas and Richard Cassilly — but exhibits the same disjoint relationship as this Madrid performance between a huge, well-oiled symphonic orchestra and Weill's cabaret-based idiom. Pablo Heras-Casado is a visibly enthusiastic conductor, but the stage and pit often seem separate sound worlds — part of the equivocal nature of hearing this piece in a large venue. In the final analysis, despite some directorial excesses this issue is worth seeing for fans of the piece; I'm not sure it makes a definitive case for Mahagonny's value as viable "big house" fare.