Reviewed: Threepenny Opera

Mack the nice.

Cabaret artist Meow Meow in the Threepenny Opera.
Cabaret artist Meow Meow in the Threepenny Opera.

Threepenny Opera
Jurowski, London Philharmonic Orchestra

Part of the excitement of the Southbank Centre’s current The Rest Is Noise festival is the Narnia-like magic of its immersive weekends. Push open the doors to the Royal Festival Hall and you could find yourself in 1906 Graz, jostling for space alongside a teenage Adolf Hitler in the crowd for the premiere of Strauss’s Salome; wandering from village to village in search of folk music with Bartók and Vaughan Williams; or pickled in the smoke and social liberation of US jazz clubs. On the first weekend in March it was time to step into 1920s Berlin and its infamous cabarets.

Authenticity is a tricky thing to grasp in an era more aped and essentialised artistically than almost any other, and there were some uneasy compromises in the programming. Giving the people what they want (Liza Minnelli, Hitler and Marlene Dietrich, apparently) had mixed results, but surely we were on safe ground with The Threepenny Opera – Brecht and Weill’s iconic anti-opera of the Weimar Republic?

Up to a point. The luxury of a full-length production of the work was never going to be a possibility in this context but I wonder whether a better dramatic compromise could have been found than the semi-staging offered by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir and Vladimir Jurowski. Although emotionally alienating in classic epic theatre fashion, the piece is defined by its social immediacy – something that didn’t quite survive here.

The roots of the “degenerate” musical weed that is the Threepenny Opera stretch back to 18th-century London and John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, a slick bit of musical satire that beat Handel at his own game and took the best tunes from opera’s kings and emperors, only to hand them to the prostitutes and low-lives – a prototype kitchensink drama. Adapting it for 1928 Berlin, Brecht and Weill kept the English setting but transformed it into a work of vernacular drama; and just as the pointed little parable about capitalism spoke loudly through its original mask, so an English translation might have had some interesting things to say about topical questions of economic and political morality. As it was, authenticity was valued over honouring the spirit of the original, and instead of a confrontational evening of living art we got an enjoyable period piece.

The tenor Mark Padmore led the cast, wearing a deeply sinister moustache as the murderous Macheath and fluting his top register with practised suavity. His duet with Nicholas Folwell’s Tiger Brown was as chilling as it was perfect, but proving the wisdom of Weill’s wish to cast actors rather than singers, Padmore’s Mack never quite found a settled core of character, nor the magnetism that would lure so many women to their doom (bloody or otherwise.)

Far better were the veterans Felicity Palmer and John Tomlinson as the Peachum parents, with Tomlinson gamely accompanying himself on the chamber organ for his “Morning Anthem”. Palmer’s “Ballad of Sexual Slavery” was pitched between solemnity and deviant horror. These two grotesques helped anchor the younger cast, who seemed unwilling to push into the unpleasant places the authors lead their characters, keeping one foot safely on the nicely scrubbed stage of the classical concert hall.

Directing proceedings with cynicism and complete control of his audience was Max Hopp’s Narrator. Delivering Brecht’s own arch reduced narration (synopsising whole scenes in a throwaway sentence), he marshalled a slightly confused audience through the process, albeit perhaps placing undue emphasis on comedy at the expense of the work’s darker elements. Darkness wasn’t an issue for the cabaret performer Meow Meow – a natural fit for the vengeful prostitute Jenny, husking out her songs with lived-in emotion and restoring “Pirate Jenny” to the violence it should also have found when sung by Allison Bell’s Polly (underpowered, dramatically and vocally). The “Solomon Song” also stepped just outside the safe dramatic frame established by the evening, reaching for something a little sharper and more grubby than the glossy comedic slickness of Jurowski and his band.

Effort and consideration had clearly gone into presenting The Threepenny Opera in a format as unlike a concert as possible, but while the results were admirably skilled under Ted Huffman’s direction, no amount of clever staging or gestures could compensate for the void where the weeping sores, roughly amputated emotions and bleeding skulls of Brecht and Weill’s characters should be.

In reducing the work to just the score – a self-consciously alienating patchwork of interchangeable set pieces and genre songs – Huffman and Jurowski lost some of those dramatic tensions that startled 1920s Berlin and still can, given half a chance.