Three fugitives from justice found a city in the American desert. Their leader, the widow Begbick , reasons that it is easier to extract gold from prospectors than it is to extract it from Alaskan rivers. They are joined by a group of whores, led by Jenny Smith. The city attracts many prospectors, lured by the attractions of cheap whiskey and the aforesaid whores. Among them is Jimmy Mahoney, played by Jerry Hadley. Jimmy is attracted to Jenny but, at first, finds the city tedious with its petty restrictions (no singing, no kissing). The city is narrowly missed by a hurricane which causes Jimmy to declare that, since they have been spared, anything goes and all restrictions should be abandoned. There follows an orgy of eating, whoring, boxing matches and drinking. Finally, Jerry is condemned to death and executed for not being able to pay his bar bill.
I do not usually start a review with such a full summary of the plot. I do so here because I am bemused by it. In The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny , Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht seem to eschew any sense of irony or satire and present us with a simple story of the horrors of capitalism. I find it difficult to believe that, in 1930, people needed to be told in such a simple way that capitalism has its sordid side. I have never seen a production of Mahagonny before and it is easy to see why it is so rarely performed. It seems so dated: there is nothing more old-fashioned than the recent past. Maybe, like Handel's operas, it will have to wait 200 years before it is brilliantly revived.
Meanwhile, we have this 1998 production from Salzberg, which makes a very strong case for the work, despite the weakness of the material. In Peter Zadek's production we see a vast, bare stage, representing the desert at the outset, gradually being filled with buildings and people as the city of Mahagonny progresses. The conductor, Dennis Russell Davies, drives the score along nicely although 2 ½ hours of Kurt Weill does become rather fatiguing. The performances are excellent. The great Wagnerian, Gwyneth Jones turns in what is essentially a character performance as the Widow Begbick. Catherine Malfitano's Jenny is full of mature voluptuousness. She has the only well known number in the show, Alabama Song. I found her rendition strangely disappointing, perhaps because I usually hear it sung by jazz-inflected singers. Her later, more operatic, numbers (they are scarcely arias) are more successful. The outstanding performance for me was from Jerry Hadley as Jimmy. He combines his lyric tenor with a Siegfriedian destructive exuberance. It made me want to see him in a more substantial role. I loved the way he jumps down from the stage and harangues the embarrassed Burghers of Salzberg on the pleasures of anarchy.
This seems to be a commendable but hopeless attempt at breathing life into a moribund opera. By the end I needed a stiff drink and I felt like Catherine Malfitano singing Alabama Song: "O show me the way to the next whiskey bar "
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