Tuesday, 10 March 2015

ROH: The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny ★★★★


For most operas, and contrary to popular belief, audiences are not required to read a synopsis or any literature about the creative process of the work, however, for The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny in German), a little bit of reading wouldn’t hurt.
The opera’s creators, the poet and librettist Bertolt Brecht, and composer Kurt Weill, collaborated during the 1930s after World War I and the collapse of the Weimar Republic. At the time, German and Austrian composers were reinventing opera having developed Zeitoper (opera in the time in German) in the 1920s, which mixed together music genres: jazz, contemporary, and cabaret, with political satire. 
Based on an opera of ‘juxtapositions’, from music to text, The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny follows the lives of criminals searching for an escape who end up in the city of Mahagonny, which breeds cash, greed, capitalism and sex. Given the opera’s unusual nature, audiences will wonder whether a production has captured the ironies and quizzical devices that Brecht and Weill implemented in the 1930s.
Last night was the opening night for the first, ever, production of The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny at the Royal Opera House. Under the direction of John Fulljames it successfully captured the complexity of the opera as delivered in the 1930s. Fulljames’ production has updated the opera to 2015 with high-tech digital trends and props, which Brecht and Weill would have, only, dreamt of. 

There are various themes (too many to mention here) that are purposefully embedded by Brecht and Weill, but Fulljames has introduced a production that allows the audience to freely figure out the complicated metaphors and allegories in an uncomplicated manner. One of these devices are the songs. Although originally written in German, there are easily memorable, and tongue-in-cheek, songs written and sung in English including the ‘Benares Song’ and the well-known ‘Alabama Song’, which has been covered by multiple artists from David Bowie to music band The Doors. 
To keep the opera fresh Fulljames has instilled a cross-pollination of digital traditions. Finn Ross’ video designs are layered on top of one another, which include an image of a hurricane, an animated weather map, footage of civilians in the middle of a hurricane and even a title screen that reads ‘Mahagonny’. This is neatly bundled up with audio recordings of inscriptions set between each scene and live broadcast footage of the singers on stage, and some members of the audience. (You’ve been warned!)
This appropriately merges in with Es Devlin’s fascinating set designs, one of the best stage designs I’ve seen at the Royal Opera House, with a versatile lorry that opens up into many things like a magician’s bag. It can be a gruelling office, a prostitutes' hub, or a bar with jazz pianist, Robert Clarke, playing away with large white palm trees sat right next to him. The use of huge colourful shipments boxes is also an industrial cabinet of curiosity that stores more than human traffic and whiskey decanters combined.
The chorus singers were enthusiastic and on excellent form on stage. They were most remarkable at the end of the opera to the song, ‘To This Day Found In Mahagonny’, which sounded almost like a quasi-sermon song. Mark Wigglesworth conducted the ROH orchestra and although, the music was full of quality, pace and energy, I felt there was a lack of volume for some songs that needed an extra punch such as the first run of the ‘Alabama song’. I also got a sense that some musicians were more confident than others given that the opera was being played here for the first time.
Yet confidence wasn’t a problem for our eclectic cast. Annie Sofie von Otter, as Begbick, was a joy to watch, but vocally she was all over the place. She started off on strong form yet by Act 2 her voice wasn't as consistent. There was confusion as to whether her accent was English or American as well. Willard W. White, as Moses, was simply authentic. He brought his vintage, signature bass-baritone voice that was a thrill to hear. And Peter Hoard was also a great act on stage but for the role of Fatty there wasn’t a good enough aria to show off his vocal talent. 
(Photo: From the Times)
But it was Kurt Streit’s Jimmy and Christine Rice’s Jenny that got the audiences' attention. Streit sang as a rebel who broke all the rules, when it wasn’t permitted, and he didn’t hold back. Streit's character was possibly the only character that showed raw emotion and he sung as if he was at the a picket line over brassy jazz and ragtime melodies. Rice, however, controlled her voice to model the mind frame and stoic mannerisms of Jenny who acknowledged her profession as a prostitute and desire for nothing but hard cash. Her pure silky voice was present but Rice managed to embrace and fine tune her vocals to remind the audience that Jenny was a prostitute who only cared about money.
Operas like this one, with sophisticated concepts, unorthodox narrative, huge set designs and a combination of artistic genres, are few and far between. The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny is a bizarre opera. At times it can be morose, realistic and too close to home, particularly with topics about the economy and society as a whole but audiences are bound to ask themselves a few thought provoking questions whilst being entertained by a pig playing an accordion. 

The opera is showing until the 4th of April. Click here for more information. 
Photographs courtesy of the Royal Opera House.