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Kurt Weill
17 Jun 2009

Bostridge trades fey for Kray

Bostridge traded his fey haircut for slicked back Kray brothers look, complete with wrap round dark glasses in this Dreigroschenoper at the Barbican, London.

Kurt Weill/Bertholt Brecht : Die Dreigroschenoper

Ian Bostridge (Macheath), Angelika Kirschlager (Jenny), Dorothea Röschmann (Polly), HK Griber (Peachum and conductor), Florian Boesch (Tiger Brown), Hanna Schwarz (Mrs Peachum), Cora Burggraf (Lucy Brown), Klangforum Wien


The Kray Brothers were notorious gangsters in 1950’s London, who mixed crime with “gentlemanly” smoothness, so the image fits well with Brecht’s adaptation ogf the 18th century English original. MacHeath, or Mackie Messer, is an inscrutable sleazeball who always manages to slip away from tight situations. He oozes, like slime, his lines replicated in saxophone and slide trombone. So Bostridge’s lounge lizard characterization was very apt, understated but with an edge of febrile menace.

Driegroschenoper (Threeprenny Opera) was first performed as part of the agit prop cabaret world of Brecht and Weill’s Berlin. The 1931 recording and subsequent film (rather too naturalistic) has defined its performance history. It made Lotte Lenya the iconic Weill personality. Dozens of singers have colonised the image since then, as if Lenya’s rough voice was a licence for bad singing. Certainly Brecht and Weill used actors rather than singers in those early years, because they were poor and their politics meant they wanted to reach audiences in clubs, not opera houses. It’s a “Beggar’s Opera” after all.

But therein lies the contradiction that makes the piece so interesting. It masquerades as cabaret theatre, but it’s actually quite sophisticated musically. Just as Brecht turns the 18th century John Gay play on its head, Brecht turns musical genres upside down. The rousing Finale is a Bach Chorale in disguise.

This performance was conducted by HK Gruber who also sang Peachum, “the poorest man in the world” who is also The King of the Beggars (another contradiction. Gruber can do sardonic irony better than anyone else, so his approach to 3dO is in a whole other league from the usual straightforward “entertainment” mode. Beneath the cute tunes, Brecht’s message is savage : all the world’s a stage and a mad one at that. So Gruber ropes in Klangforum Wien as his “orchestra”. They are one of the best contemporary music ensembles around and can do “difficult” anytime. Here they are playing banjos, guitars, saxophones and rinky tink piano. And the chorus, who’re used to singing such complex things they need to use tuning forks, get to do “backing vocals”. It’s nice to see them all in different colourful costumes)

Proof of this musically astute approach are the soloists. Luxury casting this : Angelika Kirschlager sings a brilliantly saucy Jenny, slinking like a snake, a perfect partner to Bostridge’s louche MacHeath. Dorothea Röschmann’s usual sweetness is here laced with poison - she can act as well as sing. In this performance Polly sings Seeraüber Jenny, not Jenny herself. This works well, because it adds another level of musical cross-dressing.

More good performances from Florian Boesch as Tiger Brown the corrupt cop and Cora Burggraf as his daughter, Hanna Schwarz as Mrs Peachum, a coloratura foil to Gruber’s burlesque Peachum. His lines are half speech, half ham, so having a proper singer as his wife is a telling contrast. There’s plenty of proof as to the value of proper voices in Weill.

Lotte Lenya was the Tracey Emin of her time, and a sledgehammer persona was probably needed to bring Weill success on Broadway. If the public persona of Brecht and Weill was a caricature, their real message could be packaged in a less overtly political way. In the former East Germany, socialism wasn’t scary, so there was nothing to prove or defend. Thus the DDR Weill performance tradition diverged from the Lenya model. Weill and Eisler were performed by “real” singers like Gisela May and, of all people, Peter Schreier, consummate Mozartean, Bachophile and Liedermeister.

These are the recordings to seek out : you can actually hear the words, enunciated with the same precision as there is in the writing. Because Lenya dominated the western market, we’re been persuaded that hers is the only way to do Brecht, and we’re rewarded by pop stars and amateurs who are fun, but not necessarily best placed to reveal the real Weill.

More proof of the value of agile voices came in the rapid fire ensembles, crackling with staccato. The Kanonen Song was especially impressive, where Bostridge and Boesch bounced off each other with military precision. Perfect timing and panache are of the essence here to reveal the clarity of Weill’s writing, too often obscured by less sharply focussed performances.

Anne Ozorio

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