In Review > International

Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny

BERLIN
Staatsoper im Schiller Theater
6/6/14

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The chorus in Vincent Boussard's production of Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny at the Staatsoper im Schiller Theater
© Matthias Baus 2014
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Jardi Carboni and Norman Reinhardt
© Matthias Baus 2014
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Gabriele Schnaut as Leocadia Begbick
© Matthias Baus

In June, while Berlin's other two opera houses were importing their programs from the English National Opera (Billy Budd at the Deutsche Oper and Castor et Pollux at the Komische), the Deutsche Staatsoper unveiled a dark and glittering production of Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, the iconic Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht collaboration from 1931 that is as quintessentially Berlin as Currywurst (seen June 6). The new staging by Vincent Boussard was the company's first since 1963, when its one and only previous production, by the East German director Fritz Bennewitz, had its premiere. 

Working with his regular collaborators Vincent Lemaire (who provided the minimal sets) and fashion designer Christian Lacroix — the same team responsible for 2011's memorably zany Candide — Boussard served up another slick and fluid production, although one whose sensibilities were closer to Bob Fosse's All That Jazz than to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. In doing so, he bested the Komische Oper, who previously held a Mahagonny monopoly in this city with former Intendant Andreas Homoki's 2006 production. The cleverest idea in that KO production was the literal construction of the set during the evening's first half; it's worst one was the endlessly rotating stage amid fluttering dollar bills after intermission. Judging by the musical caliber though, the KOB still wins by a large margin, a fact that has much to do with that company's longstanding tradition of performing works on the cusp between opera and musical theater, a practice that has only intensified since Barrie Kosky took up the reins two seasons ago, introducing many works by Weill and his contemporaries, such as Paul Abraham and Emmerich Kálmán.  

Aside from different performing traditions between the two companies, one of the chief problems was the venue itself: the Staatsoper's temporary home in the Schiller Theater frequently swallowed voices whole. Conductor Wayne Marshall, while attuned to the Weill's syncopated rhythms as well as the foxtrot and blues-inspired melodies all too rarely achieved a proper balance between stage and pit. The reduced forces of the Staatskapelle gave a spirited reading, but didn't always show the confidence — or coordination — that comes from familiarity with a score. Making Brecht's often-jerky series of scenes and Weill's stylistically all-over-the-place music seem like an organic whole can be difficult, but Marshall seemed to embrace the disjointed quality of the work. Beyond this, the awkward pauses between the individual numbers made the performance lag occasionally. To be sure, this was in part due to the onscreen text that replaced the traditional — and somewhat dated — narration so central to Brecht's strategy of estrangement.  

As often happens when the company embraces works outside of its ordinary repertoire, the cast was largely comprised of guest singers. Gabriele Schnaut's delicious performance as Widow Begbick oozed with mischief and Weimar decadence. There didn't seem to be much left of the dramatic mezzo-soprano's lower range, but she sang with relish and dramatic conviction and the rough quality of her aging voice was an excellent match for hard-edged sentimentality of Weill's music. Tenor Michael König needed some warming up as Jim Mahoney, but when he settled into the role — and the musicians didn't drown him out — he tore through it with zeal, wowing with a particularly Tristan-like account of "Wenn der Himmel hell wird," Jim's aria while awaiting trial. 

With her plush voice, recent ensemble addition Evelin Novak was the most traditionally operatic performer. But she wasn't particularly convincing as Jenny Hill. The defeatist attitude that she maintained from the "Alabama Song" and the "Havana Song" (here sung is an earlier version with melodic and harmonic variations — sadly, no guitar strumming!) to her farewell to Jim worked against her performance: more often than not, her Jenny just came across as tired. Another recent Staatsoper acquisition, Tobias Schabel, proved more convincing (and energetic) as Trinity Moses, plus his booming voice was consistently audible. And the much-used house baritone Arttu Kataja, as Bank Account Billy, was particularly smooth and affecting in the courtroom scene. 

All the performers — including the well-prepared chorus and a small dancing troupe — were committed to the ritualistic quality Boussard's production, with its stark alteration of darkness and neon colors, reflecting surfaces (a mirrored-door was the main set piece) and a near-constant chain curtain that served as a hazy filter between the audience and the stage. spacer 

A. J. GOLDMANN

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2