Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "A Lost Alabama: Mockingbird in Reverse" (on Kurt Weill's and Bertolt Brecht's Aufsteig und Fall der Stadt Mahgonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny)


a lost alabama: mockingbird in reverse
by Douglas Messerli

Bertolt Brecht (libretto), Kurt Weill (composer) Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) / 1930 / performed by Teatro Real Madrid in 2010 / I saw this on HD Broadway on April 27-28.

Howard and I first saw Kurt Weill’s and Bertolt Brecht’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in the early days of the Washington National Opera, Howard suggests at that city’s Lisner Auditorium, but I believe it was in an early operatic performance at The Kennedy Center. The only WNO production we saw at Lisner, if I remember correctly, was Frederick Delius’s Koanga in 1970, their only performance of that year. Perhaps we saw the Weill/Brecht opera the next year when the Washington National Opera moved over, thanks to Roger L. Stevens, at the new city treasure.
      We were young, and probably still innocent enough that I could not fully appreciate its dark, bawdy, and satirical views. Of course, I loved the song “Moon Over Alabama” (David Bowie’s version):

Oh, show me the way to the next whiskey bar
Oh, don't ask why, no, don't ask why

For we must find the next whiskey bar
Or if we don't find the next whiskey bar
I tell you we must die, I tell you we must die
I tell you, I tell you, I tell you we must die

Oh, moon of Alabama, it's time to say goodbye
We've lost our good old mama
And must have whiskey or you know why

But I recall the opera as being more of a kind cabaret event than a true opera. And surely, at times, this Weill-Brecht work does bear more resemblance to The Threepenny Opera than to the “true” operatic repertoire—whatever that might mean.
      Yet, what a delicious discovery over the last two days was the on-line streaming of Teatro Real Madrid’s 2010 production of this work, conducted by the Spanish version of our Venezuelan/Los Angeles hero Gustavo Dudamel, Pablo Heras-Casado (quite brilliantly conducting the Bolshoi Theatre Symphony Orchestra), and whose production was directed by the Catalan-based experimental La Fura dels Baus geniuses Alex Ollé and Carlus Padrissa.
       As the Spanish newspaper’s El País’s J. Á. Vela Del Campo summed it up:

The much-feared new production by Gérard Mortier in
the Teatro Real of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny 
resulted in a success on several levels: vocal, orchestral, 
choral, theatrical, dramatic. This opera is above
all an assemblage of different artistic disciplines. 
In this production they came together like clockwork, 
and this time it was Kurt Weill
and Bertolt Brecht who benefited the most."


   Suddenly, in the singing of Jane Henschel (as the evil leather-bound matron of Mahagonny, Leocadia Begbick), Willard White (as her cohort, Trinity Moses), Measha Brueggergosman (as the beloved whore Jenny), and Michael König (as the Alaskan gold-miner Jim MacIntyre, who falls for Jenny hard) I realized what a remarkable opera this truly was.

     I will not, this time around, attempt to relay the silly plot in its entirety. Weill and Brecht confused geography and American dialect enough to make the story so improbable that it is almost impossible to make out why the three central escaping felons have moved up to a desolate northern spot in the South of the country in which they feel safe enough to establish a kind of early Las Vegas-like city, Mahagonny, where liquor, sex, and money rule—let alone explaining why Alaskan miners are drawn to it, along with other slimy businessmen, in this production dressed in suits.
     The only thing that is important is that none of the would-be pleasure-seekers are unhappy where they’ve landed, creating shifting factions in their newly found community, and resulting, eventually in the death of MacIntyre which ends in the sinful city’s fall. Las Vegas’ dimmed neon lights in our current pandemic remind me of that same demise.
     Yet watching this bawdy satire over the last two days, Weill’s remarkable skill as a composer nailed me. I laughed, cried, suffered with the numerous shifts in his score from the late 1920s, and which in its premiere in 1930 resulted in the Nazi’s hatred, and in both Weill’s (in 1933) and Brecht’s (1939) move to the USA, which, along with so many German artists, helped make for their importance in US culture.

Los Angeles, April 29, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (April 2020).

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