Freedom for the Rich

Brecht and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny might seem a peculiar choice for the Salzburg Festival but it was performed there in 1998 and was broadcast by ORF and subsequently issued as a DVD on Kultur in North America and Euroarts in Europe.

The musical style is pretty similar to most other pre USA Weill works; it sounds more like cabaret than grand opera and feels as if it would benefit from a more intimate setting than the Grosses Festspielhaus. One also feels that the director (Peter Zadek) is trying a bit too hard to fill up the space; There’s lots of “stuff” and busy action that doesn’t seem to add any meaning. It’s a problem I’ve also noticed with the Met HD broadcasts. A bigger problem though lies in the casting. Voices that can fill a huge theatre are maybe not the most idiomatic for this music. The problem really comes over with the women. Dame Gwyneth Jones as the widow Begbick is truly a piece of WTF casting. Catherine Malfitano as Jenny (a role created by Lotte Lenya) is better but still a bit overly operatic. She does act very well though. The one clear success is Jerry Hadley as Jim Mahoney who seems to manage to be idiomatic and to project enough sound. His is a great performance. Among the other characters I thought Wilbur Pauley as a lean, even cadaverous, Trinity Moses really stood out. The orchestral playing is precise and jazzy at the same time. Dennis Russell Davies gets some really good playing from the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

The staging is eclectic and inevitably didactic. Brecht leaves no Marxist cliche unemployed and the staging and direction follows suit. The best examples are early in the second act where Jacob Schmidt is eating himself to death in a scene reminiscent of The Meaning of Life closely followed by a good deal of nudity and more; it seems to be veering towards anal fisting at one point, to underscore the commoditised nature of sex in capitalist society. During this extended indictment of commercialism, Mahoney moves through the orchestra into the audience and we get the irony of him singing surrounded by the Salzbourgeoisie in their finery. Subtle? Not so much. There’s also lots of weird symbolism in the sets; disembodied Statue of Liberty, elephant statues etc, that I just don’t get. All in all, this isn’t a bad production but it’s not one I can imagine watching very often and I feel like I want to see the more recent LA version to see if it’s more successful.

Technically, the DVD is of its era. The picture is 16:9. The only sound option is Dolby Digital 2.0. There are English subtitles only (This production is sung, mostly, in German). Brian Large (surprise!) directed for TV. For once, I don’t mind that he used a lot of close ups as much of the action cropped seemed to serve little purpose but to fill up space.

And in today’s “only connect” trivia moment I can point out that the premiere of Mahagonny was conducted by Alexander Zemlinsky whose Florentine Tragedy will be directed in Toronto this season by one Catherine Malfitano.

Here’s a link to the “Loving” scene from Act 2. Don’t play this at work!

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