Welcome to the city of Mahagonny, where eating, drinking, fighting and fucking are all not just permitted, but actively encouraged, where pleasure stands on every street corner and there’s no crime more despicable than not paying your bill.
It’s a bold move by the Royal Opera House to stage their first ever production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s almost-opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny – an unblinking satire on capitalism with a history of contemporary failure. Thanks to a production as slick as it is seamy, exaggerating rather than ignoring the work’s quirks and discontinuities, they have made something with all the energy, the invention of their recent Anna Nicole. Unlike Turnage’s Anna Nicole however, Weill’s score is a thing of bizarre beauty, giving back all it receives in emotional and dramatic impetus.
Director John Fulljames takes Brecht’s updated parable of Sodom and Gommorah and plays on 21st-century fears and taboos. Act I takes place almost entirely in the back of a lorry, travelling along Lynch-esque highways crammed full of faceless folk hoping for a better life. These are scenes we recognise from news footage from Calais, Syria, Somalia, resonant in their very banality and ugliness. Confining the action so dramatically isn’t without its issues, but the pay-off comes in spectacular style as the curtain rises on Act II and Es Devlin’s towering shanty-town of shipping containers – a primary-coloured Lego-style city of commerce.
Working in tandem with Finn Ross’s video projections, Fulljames and Devlin create a relentless, neon world, where anything that stands still long enough becomes an advertising hoarding. It’s a theme wittily extended beyond the operatic frame, with slogans and offers (droll, cynical) projected all round the opera house, emblazoned on ushers’ t-shirts. Everything here is for sale, if only you have the price – a message the chafes deliciously with the plush interiors of this most expensive cultural institution.
With plush interiors come plush voices. The old Weill dilemma places the music out of reach of many cabaret-style performers but also confounds opera singers with its demands. The result is generally an uneasy compromise, as is the case here. Mezzos Christine Rice and Anne Sofie von Otter (spotless sopranos have no place in this grimy, life-worn milieu) tackle the roles of prostitute Jenny and Leocadia Begbick with tremendous gusto. Rice is the more successful, her voice growing into a voluptuous loveliness more indecently sensual than any of the onstage goings-on, delivering the famous Alabama Song with truculent poise. Von Otter struggles with the amplification, never quite finding her vocal groove.
Peter Hoare relishes the character role of Fatty, while Willard White – though often wayward in his tuning – packs crates of personality into gangster Trinity Moses. But the evening belong to Kurt Streit’s Jimmy, who gamely negotiates Weill’s stratospheric lines with musicality and a certain fragility that comes into its own in the closing scenes.
These are perhaps the only moment where this all-embracing show overreaches. By including the “God came to Mahagonny” episode (neatly reworked here as a televised execution, complete with puppet theatre-style crucifixion), a tidy parable risks toppling over into a sermon – an addition that tries both patience and contemporary tastes this late in the action.
Good as it is, there’s nothing about this show that wouldn’t be better in a smaller space. Fulljames has argued that Brecht and Weill always intended this work for the opera house, for operatic voices, but not all opera houses are created equal. The Royal Opera House is a barn, and fundamentally unsuited to this kind of dialogic theatre that quite literally turns the camera on its audience. This action needs to get up close and personal if its groping, grasping fingers are really going to reach their marks.
Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is on at the Royal Opera House, 7.30pm Tuesday 10 March – 4 April 2015