Kurt Weill: Aufstieg Und Fall Der Stadt Mahagony
JONES; MALFITANO; HADLEY; RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA VIENNA; DAVIES, D.R.; ZADEK; LARGE
Am I the only one who finds it more than a little odd that a 13-year-old performance, co-produced by no fewer than 10 corporations (including ORF, SBS-TV Australia, NHK and Arte, in association with the Salzburg Festival), is only now being issued as a video? But hey, what do I know? I’d have issued Karita Mattila’s legendary Met telecast of Salome from around 2004 on video a time ago, whereas the Met only put it out in later years and not the performance that made New York audiences’ heads explode. The confusion increases when one realizes that this performance, though sung in German and given in Austria, is compiled exclusively of American and British singers. Heck, even the conductor is American. Why? Nothing in the notes explains this. Weren’t there quality singers at the Vienna State Opera they could have used, perhaps importing two or three artists for key roles? Youth wants to know! Perhaps the reason for so many Americans is Weill’s comment that Mahagonny represented “an American city” (hence setting the famous “Whisky Bar” song in English even while the rest of the opera is in German), but Weill also said, much later, that the Weimar Republic Berlin of the 1920s, a city drenched in depravity, was “in spirit the most Americanized city in Europe.” Since Weill never came to America until 1935, he had no first-hand knowledge of an American city, and despite protestations to the contrary, New York was not as depraved as Berlin. All of which leads to the questions, Is Mahagonny art? And should it still be performed? While it’s true that great art is supposed to challenge you, not put you in a comfort zone, watching Mahagonny is very uncomfortable. It always seems very close to voyeurism in a whorehouse, not as someone who is shocked and disgusted by the view but as someone who wishes they were one of the parties on the other side. On the other hand—and this is important—Mahagonny overdoes the sex and violence to such an extreme that sickening you with its excess seems to be its overriding message. You aren’t meant to take pleasure yourself in Mahagonny, but to view it and say, “That’s disgusting. I hope we never have that kind of social situation here.” Yet, ironically, we do have that kind of social situation nowadays. It’s called Las Vegas, a “city of pleasure” that was also founded by gangsters. “I’m sick of being human,” Jimmy says at one point in the opera, and that’s exactly the point. When in Mahagonny, giving in to every temptation and indulgence, you are less human. This is summed up perfectly by the barroom scene in act I, where a mechanical piano plays without a pianist, while large signs proclaim “No kissing!” and “Singing forbidden!” All enjoyment must be paid for and controlled. No one is allowed to be happy for the sake of being happy. “I really hate this place,” Jimmy sings in the barroom, “because nothing here is wrong!” The importation of an American conductor seems in practice more of a detriment than a boon. From the very beginning of the prelude, Dennis Russell Davies is lackluster and lacks momentum. Gwyneth Jones’s voice is shot. No two ways about it. Wobbly screams are just about all she could produce at this stage of her career, so that every note out of Leocadia Begbick’s mouth is sheer torture. Catherine Malfitano, somewhat rough of voice, is at least listenable, and she portrays Jenny with appropriate seediness. The late Jerry Hadley, on the other hand, is in excellent form as Jimmy Mahoney. These were very good years for him. Roy Cornelius Smith sings well as Fatty the Bookkeeper, but ironically, in looks Fatty and Trinity Moses (Wilbur Pauley) should have switched roles, as Smith is the skinniest, most cadaverous “Fatty” I’ve ever seen. Peter Zadek’s direction is minimal but effective. The stage is largely bare much of the time, with the characters entering and leaving as necessary, except when large scenes are called for (like the bar). As the performance progresses, Davies’s conducting does pick up some in momentum and intensity. I don’t think he could help himself, as the opera itself picks up in intensity. Despite the vocal deficiencies of Jones and Malfitano, this is a good performance of Mahagonny. If you don’t have one on video and are thinking about getting one, this would be a good if not consistently great choice.