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Stefanie Stappenbeck as Polly and Stefan Kurt as Macheath [Photo by Stephanie Berger courtesy of Brooklyn Academy of Music]
12 Oct 2011

Threepenny Opera, Brooklyn

Should I wait until the end of this review to tell you how much fun, how much of a theatrical whoopee cushion Robert Wilson’s production of Die Dreigroschenoper has been at BAM last week?

Kurt Weill: Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera)

Macheath: Stefan Kurt; Peachum: Jürgen Holtz; Mrs. Peachum: Traute Hoess;

Above: Stefanie Stappenbeck as Polly and Stefan Kurt as Macheath

All photos by Stephanie Berger courtesy of Brooklyn Academy of Music


Should I wait before citing the superb performers with their rictus-expressions and balletic, Dr. Caligari-meets-Charlie Chaplin slapstick, the exquisite stage pictures and the orchestrated horselaughs, burps and farts that emerged from the orchestra, the tidily synchronized sound effects of a cane whipping through the air or a curtain pulled on its links, the nasty ancient jokes that seemed to hit targets as new as this morning on Wall Street right in the gold? For me, no lover of Wilson’s glacial opera stagings (Lohengrin, Einstein on the Beach), Threepenny went by as swiftly as a smutty shaggy dog joke with many a guffaw before the punchline, and I’d gladly see it again. No; I think I’ll start with my interpretation of the piece and its place in “operatic” history. Reviews of the performers will be the punchline.

The Beggar’s Opera, the Gay-Pepusch satire on opera seria as practiced (most notably by Handel) in London in 1728, tickled many a funnybone of its time with the princes and sultans and enchantresses of opera transformed into pimps, thieves, con-men and ladies of dubious repute. The dialogue was underworld slang and the tunes were pop songs of the day. Handel’s operatic reputation took ages to recover, and the threat of satire was always a-lurk in London thereafter for any artist taken too seriously. But the audiences who laughed were not the beggars or street people John Gay depicted on stage: They were the same middle and upper classes who had admired the no longer chic Handel.

Precisely two centuries later, in 1928 in Weimar Berlin, that hotbed of cynicism, social criticism and moral decay, Beggar’s Opera was reborn. Kurt Weill, a trained symphonist with an interest in jazz, and the Leftist playwright Bertolt Brecht transformed the London beggars into the dregs of Dreigroschenoper, satirizing the self-devouring of capitalist excess in a fable that epitomized their time and place. It also made a star of Weill’s lover, Lotte Lenya. An appropriately gritty film from 1931 survives, and a couple of the songs (“Mack the Knife,” “Pirate Jenny”) are standards. The only artistic interpretation of the Weimar era that is better known, at least in this country, is Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, whose songs and personalities are prettified versions of the ones that shocked (and delighted) Berlin. Not coincidentally, the original Cabaret also starred Lenya.

Lenya’s participation in the “opera” is significant. Her voice may have been trained, but she was by no stretch of the imagination an opera singer. That was more than okay for the parts she sang; they are hardly bel canto roles. And throughout the Robert Wilson production, recently given at the Brooklyn Academy of Music opera house, I found myself wondering if the Brecht-Weill piece is an opera at all (most of it is spoken dialogue), and marveling at how the cast, none of them singing in an operatic manner, used their voices, cracked, exaggerated, twisted, sneering, insinuating, whining, caricatures in both dialogue and song, to express the antisocial, anti-sentimental story they had to tell. Threepenny Opera may be an anti-opera, but it is certainly music drama and vocal theater, thrilling, mythic, in your face.

No small part of the shock and the humor of the original Beggars’ Opera was provided by the contrast of its characters and their motivations—as well as their manner of singing—with the highfalutin pleasures of Handelian opera. Trained voices and their exquisite display were hardly the point of the songs of vengeance and sex and the lust for gold. The outrageous conclusion, with Macheath obliged (because it’s an opera) to live happily ever after with two girls who hate each other in order to suit the Handelian lieto final, undermined the aristocratic operatic morals. It was a dose of naturalism (then an unknown bird on the stage) to cure if not hack to death the artifice of the reigning form. Hacking actual reigning monarchs came a bit later.

THREEPENNY5_PC_STEPHANIE-BE.gifRuth Glöss as the Old Prostitute, Stefan Kurt as Macheath and Angela Winkler as Jenny

Over the centuries, each new theatrical step towards the “natural” has made the artificial seem more formal, more distant (Handel and his contemporaries were no longer performed) until a new sort of naturalism reigned. On the spoken stage, Scribe abandoned the royal court for the bourgeois drawing room, then Ibsen and Chekhov began to talk of things unfit for the drawing room ideal. To sum up this acceptable standard of “naturalism,” Brecht and Weill (and not only they) invaded the lowest reaches of society, with music of a studied grossness. Once naturalism has reached this extreme (and movies had created another revolution), their chic and their ability to shock soon vanished as well. Even before the triumph of the modern style of Regie-theater, Dreigroschenoper and its Brecht-Weill successors (Happy End, Mahagonny, Seven Deadly Sins) helped to invent a new theater that could only be absorbed and defused by presentation in a new artificial style. This was the occasion of Richard Foreman’s vividly formal production of Threepenny Opera with Raul Julia at the Beaumont Theater (a hit), of the John Dexter version on Broadway with Sting and Maureen McGovern (a flop), and—now—of the Robert Wilson interpretation come to New York.

Wilson, like Foreman, has his own style of artifice, imposed to some extent on every work he encounters: Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Wagner’s Lohengrin and Parsifal, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, the Stein-Thomson Four Saints in Three Acts. His encounters with the slow movement and slowly gathering message of Wagner’s dramas might have seemed a perfect fit on paper; in practice, even with performers like Ben Heppner and Karita Mattila, there was a steady seepage of dramatic excitement. At the New York premiere of Einstein, more of the audience was outside the theater, talking about the production (scathingly or otherwise), than remained inside, enduring it.

In contrast, Weill and Brecht have a very swift-moving theater, a theater that holds our attention with much activity, roundabout schemes and betrayals, slowing down barely at all for sarcastic songful commentary and reflection on the action. This, set against typically Wilsonian bars of light (for the shelves in Peachum’s pawnshop or the rafters in Macheath’s garret or the bars on his prison cell) and enacted with a set of formalized emaciated staggers, sexy swivels, dancing wobbles and leaning crowds, has us riveted, paying determined attention to the stories being enacted. The acting is anything but natural, is cartoonish and expressionistic at once, to the extent that the most vulgar gestures are as polite as silhouettes, the most monstrous jokes evoke giggles. These people are not real, and for once none of them attempt to be. Lucy Brown reacts to Mack’s betrayal with a face like Munch’s The Scream. Celia Peachum rolls her considerable bulk about in a parody of both aging sexuality and desperate petit-bourgeois propriety. Mack himself never changes his grin, whether he is seducing, betraying, murdering or being betrayed. The skull-like Tiger Brown indicates only with a voiced jowlishness his regret at stiffing his old friend. Jenny seems too battered by years as a whore to have any emotion left whether selling her lover to his enemies or rescuing him. It’s a puppet show, a carnival Faust for open-mouthed children, and when real issues like corporate wealth and its exploitation of poverty come up—as the subjects did, to much delighted laughter during performances while the Occupy Wall Street movement camped out not two miles to the west of BAM—it is perhaps to show us how close our lives have become to caricature, to send up the whole notion of a “naturalistic” theater that dares to ignore our current crisis.

In the large and excellent cast, all choreographed to suit a set of invisible furnishings and doors, Traute Hoess, the drunk and Machiavellian Mrs. Peachum, was perhaps the standout. She had, after all, more to do, more to connive, more to betray. Her hypocrisy was so very enthusiastic. Stefan Kurt performed Macheath with joy in his own villainy and egoism. Axel Werner was Tiger Brown, the skeletal old comrade, a chief of police whose lot of betrayals is not a happy one. Stefanie Stappenbeck, as Polly, symbolically renounced her illusions by changing her expression on finding another woman in her new husband’s bed—but if she can sing “Pirate Jenny,” how deluded can she be? Angela Winkler managed to look and sing as if she had lived in a garret with a pimp for forty years. Betraying him and cuddling him by turns draws no reaction from her, no alteration of the set line of her mouth and stringy hair: a dead soul. The balletic crooks in Mack’s band deserve credit for their spooky chorus line.

I have to admit a genuine regret that the happy ending was retained—the evening seemed to cry out for a hanging. But whom would you hang? Macheath the thieving, murdering bigamous pimp, or his society and its more subtle criminals? At least these guys could make us laugh. None of the fat cats they aped and mocked are capable of that.

John Yohalem

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