Brecht/Weill Mahagonny in Radebeul

You are in the theatre for Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny and are ready for the brilliance of Brecht’s sharp and sour political libretto and Kurt Weill’s hit music hall melodies, but do take heed of the richness of the orchestral score which tends to be overlooked. The details and originality of its timbres, harmonies, rhythmic patterns and instrumentation came across strikingly in the performance at Radebeul so that when more obvious things were happening on the stage or being sung, my ears were arrested by what was emanating from the pit. It was as though, at a football match, I was watching players’ actions off the ball. Credit must surely be given to the conductor Hans-Peter Preu, himself a composer, who made me listen to phrases and sounds that I cannot recall being aware of in other performances.

For a small company, the Landesbühnen Sachsen were able to field a strong team of singers. The Jimmy Mahoney, Slovenian tenor Aljaž Vesel, sang throughout with full, impassioned tone and had an engaging stage presence, winning sympathy for his plight. As the widow Begbick, Michaele Ische exuded power and contempt and she articulated the text with an idiomatic lilt. Her two lieutenants were austere, distancing themselves from the rampant pleasure-loving city. As Trinity Moses Paul Gukhoe Song deployed his rich bass with powerful effect. Kirsten Labonte was a cool Jenny but did not hold back in launching operatically her lyrical soprano voice.

Manuel Schöbel’s production was, to my taste, too busy, restlessly thrusting gratuitous images at the audience. The text and music already say so much that there is no need so to labour the points. Nor did the resort to clichéd cabaret dance routine add anything of signifance.  The presence of a raised platform across the auditorium could have been exploited to generate a Verfremdung effect, the spectators being distanced from the “reality” of the performance, but little of importance took place upon it.

As confirmed by the Radebeul presentation, Mahagonny is a masterpiece of 20th century opera, the impact of which does not lessen over time but the penetrating originality of the Brecht-Weill partnership needs treating with respect, rather than as the excuse for a glitzy show.