We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Thursday, April 25, 2013


The fate of the work itself has significantly paralleled the fate of the eponymous city.  It started life in 1927 as an experimental non-opera singspiel of one act's duration, premiering in Baden Baden.  It became a succès de scandale and shocked the audience with Kurt Weill's jazzy melodies and unusual orchestration and with Bertolt Brecht's radical countercultural themes. 

In 1930, the work was expanded to three acts and, having been too shocking for Berlin, premiered in Leipzig with some of the raunchier scenes toned down.  Brecht's libretto, strongly influenced by his Marxist view of capitalism, managed to skewer politics, the judicial system, materialism and sex.  There were riots.  By 1933, the Nazis banned the work and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny did not achieve regular productions in the USA until the 1960's.

This was a daring choice for the Manhattan School of Music.  Opera singers have invested a great deal of blood, sweat and tears learning to inhabit a role and getting the audience to identify with their characters.  In this "theater of alienation" the performers are meant to distance themselves from their characters and we of the audience are not meant to identify, but rather to use our brains and think about what is being presented to us.  Brecht held a mirror up to the culture of his epoch and wanted to shame society.  It is a distorting mirror but a mirror nonetheless.  We wonder, "Has society changed?"

With the esteemed Dona D. Vaughn as Director, with valuable contributions from Set Designer Beowulf Boritt, Costume Designer Tracy Dorman and Lighting Designer Tyler Micoleau, the goal was largely reached.  The production had a surreal and cartoony aspect that suited the improbable story of three fugitives from the law whose truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere; they decide to build a city that seems to be one where capitalism runs rampant without any civilizing forces.

No attempt is made in the direction of geographic validity or character development.  There is a curtain on a long cable which is slid back and forth.  There are titles announcing the content of each scene.  The lighting is directly over the scene and anything but atmospheric.  (Are you alienated yet?)  The costumes are splendid, especially for Jenny and the six prostitutes that come to the city to destroy any illusion of romance.  (Anti-opera, remember?) 

Rob Greene and J. Jared Janas are credited with wig, hair and makeup design and credit must be given; Rachelle Pike went unrecognized, although we had just seen her as Marthe in Faust!  But the generous mezzo voice was unmistakable in her superb performance as The Widow Begbick.  Soprano Cree Carrico employed a bright soprano to fine effect as Jenny the whore who won't give up her money to save her man from the electric chair.  The six prostitutes who sang "The Alabama Song" were fetchingly costumed Kerstin Bauer, Ann Louise Glasser, Nan Li, Kathleen Spencer, Leela Subramaniam and Ellen Teufel.

The men were no less wonderful.  Arriving in the truck with The Widow Begbick were Fatty the Bookkeeper, sung by tenor Peter Tinaglia, and Trinity Moses, sung by bass-baritone James Ioelu, well remembered from his role as Méphistophèles in Faust.  It is always exciting for us to witness an artist's versatility.

The four lumberjacks were perfectly cast: Tenor Aaron Short sang the role of Jim Mahoney who is sentenced to death because he can't pay his bar bill or bribe the judges; tenor Scott Ingraham performed the role of Jack O'Brien who dies from grotesque overeating; bass Brett Harrison Vogel sang the role of Joe who dies in a prizefight; baritone Jason Cox was the only surviving lumberjack--Bill.  Michael Papincak was Toby.

Musical values were first-rate with Maestro Kynan Johns on the podium and some mighty fine MSM musicians in the pit.  Weill's radical scoring included two saxophones and an onstage player of mandolin, banjo and bass guitar as well as the marvelous Juan Pablo Jofre playing the bandoneon.  (He seemed to be the only Argentinean involved in the production, but if you started counting New Zealanders you might run out of fingers.)  There is no praise sufficient for the chorus who were given some outstanding music and served to tie together all the loose ends.

This production used the Michael Feingold translation.  Dialogue was spoken in English and the songs were sung in German and English, as they were written originally.  Perhaps Mr. Brecht saw the USA as emblematic of lawlessness and materialism.  Perhaps we still are.

© meche kroop

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