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OPERA REVIEW : ‘Mahagonny’ Goes Hollywood

Times Music Critic

Lights. Camera. Inaction. “Mahagonny” has come to Hollywood.

The trip, alas, wasn’t necessary. And getting there wasn’t half the fun.

Play it again, Kurt? No, thanks.

Ready when you are, B.B.? Not quite.

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Just show me the way to the next whiskey bar. . . .

Perhaps you’re wondering what this blather is all about. That seems reasonable.

What doesn’t seem all that reasonable is the blathering new production of “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” a.k.a. “Aufsteig und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny,” staged by Jonathan Miller and designed by Robert Israel for the Music Center Opera. It was introduced, amid mild consternation offset by polite applause, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Sunday.

Don’t get me wrong. It is a very clever production. It is stylish and it wants to be bold. It brims with invention. It has a look. It boasts a hard-working, versatile, youthful cast. It sounds good.

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Too bad it doesn’t work.

Don’t get me wrong again. It does work, after a fashion. It works after a rather trendy, eminently gimmicky, oddly revisionist, ultimately ponderous fashion. It works on Miller’s and Israel’s terms.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work on the terms defined by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. And they did write the piece.

It is a difficult piece. No question about that. It also is a period piece. That’s what seems to have caused the trouble.

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Miller and Israel don’t seem to like, or trust, the intended period. That is their privilege. If only they had come up with something better.

“Mahagonny” is a product of Germany in the late 1920s--a Germany contemplating glitzy illusions while reeling from a disaster and preparing for a cataclysm. The opera is a bleak, unsentimental, probing satire on political oppression, sociological inequity and economic disorder. It reeks of fine Berliner decadence and cabaret banality.

It pretends to be about a distant, patently elusive, deceptively wondrous, perpetually tacky never-neverland where the streets are lined with gold. The locale was vaguely associated with Amerika .

However, Weill and Brecht didn’t concern themselves with the petty realities of the United States. They toyed, knowingly, with popular misimpressions of this promised land as filtered through seemingly naive yet chronically bitter Germanic sensibilities.

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Miller and Israel have taken away the filters. They have turned the desolate, essentially mythic region prescribed in the libretto into a soundstage in Tinseltown during its heyday. See the lights. Note the sculpted palm tree?

The thugs, molls, crooks and honorable representatives of the Lumpenproletariat become icons of the silver screen. So much for Brechtian alienation. Away we go.

Jimmy Mahoney, the lumberjack hero, is transformed into a wide-eyed matinee idol, and he gets his name changed to MacIntyre (presumably because it scans better). Jenny, the sensuous whore with a heart of tin, is turned into a kinky-haired Mary Pickford in a prim white dress. The Widow Begbick, the madam who used to be tougher than nails, gets glamorized as a strange fusion of Margaret Dumont and Mae West.

Jakob Schmidt is reduced to just plain Jack, but he looks like a caricature of Dr. Caligari. Fatty, who isn’t fat any more, might pass in the dark for Harold Lloyd. Trinity Moses, the prize-fighter, impersonates Emil Jannings impersonating Marlene Dietrich’s professorial victim in “The Blue Angel.” Keystone Kops pop up in the chorus.

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It is all so smart and so cute. It is all so wrong.

The music proves that it is wrong. Weill’s symphonic distillation of blues numbers and fox trots and jazz accents and ragtime indulgences, his inspired flights of self-mocking vulgarity, his funky syncopations, his dogged repetitions, his harmonic jolts and rhythmic jabs--all insist on the ambience of Deutschland between the wars. The parodistic songs conveyed precise messages. The Nazis noticed this when they labeled “Mahagonny” a degenerate exercise in cultural Bolshevism.

In its nasty, raw, insinuating, ultimately poignant way, Weill made it bolster Brecht’s vision of epic theater. Forget it in Los Angeles.

The Music Center Opera did not deem it worthwhile to explain the Miller-Israel concept in a program note. The management did choose, however, to perform the opera in the spicy English version of Michael Feingold. So far, so good. Then the management insulted the translator, the audience and the singers with the distracting redundancy of English supertitles.

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If some members of the cast garbled the text, diction lessons (or more careful casting) might be a better solution. If supertitles are really imperative, then we might as well have the opera in properly atmospheric German. That at least would make the exoticism of the two clumsy-English songs in the original score all the more striking.

Kent Nagano conducted with sympathetic brio, if without much concern for dramatic contrast.

The impact of the work was compromised further by pallid principals. Gary Bachlund sang the strenuous music of Jimmy with the fervent tones of a would-be Heldentenor while exuding minimal desperation. Anna Steiger introduced a plump and pretty Jenny with a musical-comedy soprano that conveyed nothing sexy about the moon of Alabama. Marvellee Cariaga struck overstuffed-diva poses as the sleazy Widow Begbick and mustered lightweight vocalism where one wanted growling thunder.

The supporting cast fared better. Greg Fedderly emerged sprightly as Fatty. Michael Gallup oozed unction as Trinity Moses. Jonathan Mack offered a craftily disgusting portrait of Jack, the glutton who devours whole calves. Louis Lebherz made an endearing old bear of Alaska-Wolf-Joe. John Atkins deftly sketched the ineffectual innocence of Pennybank Bill. Bruce Johnson was the clean-cut Toby Higgins, and Grant Gershon tickled the onstage ivories grandly with “The Maiden’s Prayer.”

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The opera closes with a momentous dirge, “Nothing you can do will help a dead man.” At the very end, the director contradicted the composer and librettist one last time, allowing the three assembled corpses suddenly to spring back to life, wink at the audience, and shrug.

That must mean something.


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