Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

David McVicar's Andrea Chénier returns to Covent Garden

Is Umberto’s Giordano’s Andrea Chenier a verismo opera? Certainly, he is often grouped with Mascagni, Cilea, Leoncavallo and Puccini as a representative of this ‘school’. And, the composer described his 1876 opera as a dramma de ambiente storico.

Glyndebourne presents Richard Jones's new staging of La damnation de Faust

Oratorio? Opera? Cantata? A debate about the genre to which Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’, La damnation de Faust, should be assigned could never be ‘resolved’.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

Kurt Weill’s Street Scene

Kurt Weill’s “American opera,” Street Scene debuted this past weekend in the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, with a diverse young cast comprised of students and alumni of the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS).

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

(L–R) Peter de Jersey (Tiger Brown) and Rory Kinnear (Macheath)
31 May 2016

The Threepenny Opera, London

‘Mack does bad things.’ The tabloid headline that convinces Rory Kinnear’s surly, sharp-suited Macheath that it might be time to take a short holiday epitomizes the cold, understated menace of Rufus Norris’s production of Simon Stephens’ new adaptation of The Threepenny Opera at the Olivier Theatre.

The Threepenny Opera, London

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: (L–R) Peter de Jersey (Tiger Brown) and Rory Kinnear (Macheath)

 

But, the violence is no veneer and Norris expertly paces the exposure, like a torturer gradually tightening a thumb-screw, peeling away the paper patina to lay bare the darkness at the core.

Vicki Mortimer’s designs tell us that this is a paper-thin world: fragile, bitter and comfortless. The underbelly of both the theatre and the East End are exposed, and iron scaffolding and flimsy tissue flats embody the latter’s extremes. Blood-stained body-bags plunge from the heights, their red fly-ropes reminding us that both murder and the noose are never far away. The bands of beggars are a ghostly troupe of shadows, balaclavas masking their humanity. The stairwells swivel but they lead nowhere; there’s no way out of this underworld. Despite the updating, Mortimer and Norris don’t sweep away the spirit of the 18th-century East End, hungry and haunted. Its starkness is matched by Stephens’ coarse, smut-strewn text which adopts a contemporary vernacular — ‘What a twat!’ spits Peachum — and recalls John Gay’s practice, in The Beggar’s Opera, of superimposing new vulgar texts onto well-known songs: ‘Oh London is a fine town’ became ‘Our Polly is a sad slut!’

Jpeg 3.pngThe Musicians

An early tableau is the closest we get to a hint of ‘relevance’. Labels identifying the causes and victims of poverty are plastered on fragments of stage-machinery: Addiction, Alcohol, Lepers, Abused Children, Lunatics — then, as now. When the roll-call of misery gets to ‘Teenage Runaways’, the cast’s parodic knee-twist prompts a guffaw from the audience, but the succeeding comment that they are ‘all undoubtedly victims of the most horrendous sexual abuse’, quickly stifles it.

Norris doesn’t overdo the Brechtian alienation gimmicks: a few gestures, such as a barked ‘Scene Change’ or ‘Interval’, nod in the direction of ‘epic’. There are some self-knowing shrugs, as when Macheath hustles a saxophonist off the stage, or snarls at us after the interval, ‘So, you came back!’, but they’re not overly intrusive.

A t-shirt slogan — ‘Over’ front, ‘-ture’ back — signals the striking up of the band, who march to the fore-stage while behind a dumb-show parade sums up the action to come. Future victims of Mack’s knife spew rope-entrails and there’s a pantomimesque hyperbole which persists when we meet the rapacious, crooked Peachums. Nick Holder’s Mr Peachum — eyes powdered with dark-rings, lips painted vampire-red, dapper in pin-stripe, pinafore and spats — and Hadyn Gwynne’s scarlet-frocked Mrs Peachum, inebriated and projectile-vomiting, have a touch of Rocky Horror Show about them. But, if initially Peachum seems merely a rotund, mischief-making opportunist, we are swiftly disillusioned: no amount of perfume can hide the stench of this Peachum’s callousness — as the cringe-making snap of Jenny Diver’s wrist later confirms. Holder relishes the vulgarities of Stephens’ lyrics — they’re all crystal-clear — and he’s well-abetted by Gwynne in the comic ribaldry.

Jpeg 5.pngJamie Beddard (Matthias) and Rebecca Brewer (Betty)

Similarly, the clipped brusqueness of Kinnear’s business-like Mackheath — the fine cut of his double-breasted, midnight-blue suit would flatter a banker — eventually slips into a tight snarl, bursting with psychopathic viciousness. This Macheath might arrive in a glowing ring — like an old-time Hollywood legend — fairy-lights twinkling behind, but a knife-silhouette speaks of his ruthlessness and as the repressed violence is released it’s clear we’re watching a psychotic bully at work, one prepared to tyrannise, brutalise, sodomise to get what he wants. The only hint of ‘charm’ comes with ‘Mack the Knife’, delivered with style and appealing vocal warmth, where Kinnear’s enjoyment of Weill’s seductive sway and Stephens’ sharp lyrics almost convinces us that there might be a human heart beneath the hardness, after all.

But, no: Kinnear’s Macheath is a study in gratuitous nastiness. But, he’s not Brecht’s Macheath, who demonstrates pretensions towards bourgeois rites and taste — with his fondness for matrimony and pride in his ability to distinguish Chippendale from Louis Quartorze when his men supply him with stolen furniture. In Brecht’s text, Macheath’s has a reckless bravado and magnetic attractiveness that outweigh any capitalist manifesto. In contrast, Kinnear’s Macheath may get want he wants, but it’s not clear why he wants it — is he just a killing machine whose life has become the knife?

Macheath’s henchmen are a dysfunctional foursome, as emotionally impaired as their overlord. Jamie Beddard, who has cerebral palsy, is cast as Matthius (aka The Shadow): he may have a speech impediment but he spits out Stephens’ expletives to the far reaches of the Olivier with acerbic clarity and corrosiveness. Dominic Tighe conveys the stiff coldness of the ‘Iceman’, while you wouldn’t want to meet Hammed Animashaun’s explosive Jimmy Retail on a dark night.

Polly Peachum’s knee-length brown cardigan is out of place in this existential hinterland, though Rosalie Craig does later don some thigh-high red leather boots under her white floral frock. Craig stands out among the cast for her ability to tap into the emotional resonances of Weill’s music. She dispatches ‘Pirate Jenny’ with steely spite, revealing the strong core beneath Polly’s bespectacled, straight-laced exterior, and she excels in the ‘Jealousy Duet’ with Debbie Kurup’s Harlem-girl Lucy Brown. Kurup’s voice glows as vivaciously as her orange shirt and red hot-pants. It’s clear that neither girl is going to be a winner.

Jpeg 7.png(L‐R) Debbie Kurup (Lucy Brown), Rory Kinnear (Macheath), and Rosalie Craig (Polly Peachum)

Sharon Small is affecting as the drug-addicted Jenny Diver, though she struggles with Weill’s challenging vocal line. Peter de Jersey is a strongly characterised Chief of Police, but I didn’t get the sense that he and Macheath were ‘partners in crime’.

The stage-craft is slick. The sleight-of-hand shifts between scenes and locales are breathless and disorientating; the big musical numbers are tightly choreographed, their juxtaposition with the surrounding text highlighted by Paule Constable’s effective ‘Songlicht. The fight scenes are both vicious and balletic: the unintentional stabbing at the end of Act 1 is perfectly timed and Kinnear captures both Macheath’s shock — a momentary wide-eyed stillness — and defiance as, confident that he will indeed ‘wriggle out of this one’, Macheath is whirled off-stage in a wheel-chair.

This may be a ‘play with music’ but Weill’s music — the songs, ensembles and the instrumental interludes played during the scene changes — is anything but incidental. The ensemble cast may be singing thespians rather than acting singers — and some struggled to convey the dramatic and emotional richness of Weill’s score — but none of Brecht’s and Weill’s original cast, on 31 August 1928 in the small Theater am Schffbauerdamm in Berlin, was a professional opera singer. The occasionally unpolished vocal delivery matches the rough-edged set and they are magnificently supported by David Shrubsole and his musicians, who wander in and out of the action in macabre gothic get-ups. As Mortimer’s sets disembowel the theatre, so Shrubsole’s band turn the opera inside out.

This is a terrific production which I would urge no one to miss. But, reflecting post-performance I found myself more sceptical about what essential ‘messages’ the production was designed to communicate.

Jpeg 11.pngHaydn Gwynne (Mrs Peachum) and Nick Holder (Mr Peachum)

Die Dreigroschenoper was initially conceived as art about art. In Brecht’s text, during his wedding Macheath quips, ‘I’m not asking for an opera’; and, when the knifer is reprieved at the close, Peachum retorts, ‘So at least in opera, one can see how mercy comes before justice’. It may have drawn from diverse worlds — dance band, Lutheran chorale, jazz, popular song — but the work is consistently in dialogue with ‘high’ culture (John Gay, François Villon, Rudyard Kipling, Wagnerian leitmotiv, Stravinsky, Satie, Cocteau, Picasso …). Weill remarked thatDie Dreigroschenoper ‘presented us with an opportunity to make “opera” the subject matter for an evening the theatre’.[1]

But, when Brecht published a revised version of the libretto in 1931, he re-wrote the dialogue to strengthen the political message, and said, in a 1933 interview, that what mattered to him was ‘A critique of society. I had tried to show that the mind-set and emotional life of street robbers is immensely similar to the mind-set and emotional life of respectable citizens.’ Brecht designed his text to reveal the true unacceptable face of capitalism, in which criminals who are similarly bourgeois set the tone for business. It seems ironic that, for all Stephens’ skewering of fat cats, corporate golden handshakes and peers’ expense scandals, a lot of money has been spent at the National Theatre in depicting a world that has none, in order to perform ‘high’ culture, to an essentially middle-class audience.

We remember the words of Brecht’s ‘First Threepenny Finale’, delivered by a cynical Peachum:

Let’s practise goodness; who would disagree?
But sadly on this planet while we’re waiting
The means are meagre and the morals low.
To get one’s record straight would be elating
But our conditions such it can’t be so.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production details:

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill: The Threepenny Opera (anew adaptation by Simon Stephens)

The Balladeer/Pastor Kimball — George Ikediashi, Captain Macheath — Rory Kinnear, Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum — Nick Holder, Filch — Sarah Amankwah, Celia Peachum — Haydn Gwynne, Polly Peachum — Rosalie Craig, Robert (AKA The Iceman) — Dominic Tighe, Matthius (AKA The Shadow) — Jamie Beddard, Walter (AKA The Scholar) — Andrew Buckley, Jimmy ‘Retail’ — Hammed Animashaun, Chief Inspector ‘Tiger’ Brown — Peter de Jersey, Jenny Diver — Sharon Small, Vixen — Toyin Ayedun-Alase, Betty — Rebecca Brewer, Ruby — Ricky Butt, Officer Smith — Matt Cross, Lucy Brown — Debbie Kurup, Ensemble — Mark Carroll, Conor Neaves, Wendy Somerville; Director — Rufus Norris, Designer — Vicki Mortimer, Musical Director — David Shrubsole, Choreographer — Imogen Knight, Lighting Designer — Paule Constable, Sound Designer — Paul Arditti, Fight Directors — Rachel Bown Williams and Ruth Cooper (RC-ANNIE Ltd). Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London, Saturday 28th May 2016.



[1] See Stephen Hinton, Wiell’s Musical Theater: Stages of Reform (University of California Press, 2012).

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):