The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: “Threepenny Opera” takes us from Weimar Germany to Walker’s Wisconsin with style and verve

February 8, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Are Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican lackeys opening Wisconsin for business? Or giving Wisconsin the business?

That question struck me as I sat though Madison Opera’s thoroughly engaging and stylishly energetic production of “The Threepenny Opera,” which concludes its sold-out run of seven performances next weekend. (Some cancelled seats may be available. Call (608) 238-8085.)

Based on a 1728 British play by John Gay, the 1928 cabaret-style satire by playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill (below right) keeps posing questions about moral hypocrisy, social relevance and economic hard times that pertain not only to the depression of Weimar Germany between the two world wars but also to today’s Great Recession.

How, this masterpiece of musical theater piece bitingly asks, do the poor continue to get exploited and accept it? How come the better off keep getting better off? Questions of social justice are never far from the personal stories of beggars, thieves and prostitutes as entrepreneurs.

This is a more complex show to stage than it might seem. And all the various creators did their parts fine.

Madison Symphony Orchestra maestro and Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) did a fine job of leading the eight-piece cabaret band (which included acclaimed UW saxophonist Les Thimmig) from the back of the stage. DeMain, a pianist before he turned conductor, conducted from the keyboard while playing. Overall, he did a terrific job in conveying the period-feel of the music, though I found the occasionally the balance was off and the music drowned out the words of the songs.

The sets, designed by Peter Harrison for the Opera Omaha production, were clever and inventive. Ordinary metal scaffolding (below, in a photo by Andy Manis for the Madison Opera)) served many purposes, from a jail cell to a gallows to a brothel. The atmospherics of scarcity were palpable.

The costumes, by Karen Brown-Larimore of Madison, caught the tawdry side of poverty blended with even the set curtain was made of rag-like pants and shirts.

And under the guidance of veteran Broadway stage director Dorothy Danner (below), the 2-1/2 hour, 3-act opera moved smoothly and convincingly.

Even the lighting by John Frautschy, also of Madison, proved effective in bringing the down-and-out characters in and out of the shadows – literally as well as figuratively.

Overall, the casting seems pretty even and very good. But there were, for me, a few standouts. Jenny Diver (Tracy Michelle Arnold of American Players Theatre in Spring Green, below with Jim DeVita in a photo by Andy Manis) displayed a strong voice, great articulation and diction, and the kind of racy costuming and enticing moves that embodied the seamy and torchy side of the era. She completely inhabited the part.

Edward Marion (the former judge and prominent lawyer from Madison) played the street singer narrator (as well as a pastor and constable) with aplomb. I could swear that his headset amplification sometimes went out, but when you could hear him he did a fine job of holding the showing together and giving it unity.

And Mr. J.J. Peachum, the king of the beggars, who exploits the exploited even to providing interchangeable limb stumps, was convincingly portrayed by David Barron. Scams and scamps are everywhere, high and low, in the delightfully sardonic work.

Surprisingly, Jim DeVita (below, with Alicia Berneche as Polly Peachum in a photo by Andy Manis) of American Players Theatre, acquitted himself well, but didn’t seem to have the forceful voice that I expected from someone used to performing outdoors. His acting movements were smooth enough and he did a fine job of playing Macheath (Mack the Knife), who is surrounded by adoring and competing prostitutes.

But clearly, singing – even in a work that calls for rough rather than polished singing — is not his strong suit. I think his performance could have, indeed should have, been a bit looser and more ragged in keeping with the spirit of the work itself, which has an improvised and unfinished feel to it.

Also to be enjoyed are the video screens that allow you to see that titles of the various songs – titles that are unusual and inventive and color. They provide Brecht’s famous “alienation affect” meant to remind you that you are watching a play and not reality – but it did so without the pomp that the theory makes sound inescapable.

I had expected to be disappointed that the work was sung in English rather than German. But actually it worked out quite well. Still, the one big production flaw to my mind was the use of British Cockney accents, director Danner’s choice. American composer and political leftist Marc Blitzstein penned the idiomatic translation. (The Wisconsin Historical Society, by the way, has his papers at its Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater.)

I think the audience can accept that the scene is Victorian London without having a mishmash of accents, which often seems to interfere with a clear articulation of the words. Besides, the acerbic lyrics by Bertolt Brecht are not to be missed. I would opt for forgetting about British accents and instead using the props, costume and staging to set the scene (below, from Opera Omaha).

Surely American English in London can’t be any more unrealistic than Weimar German in London, which is what happened with the original production of this often produced and widely admired award-winning show.

I don’t want to give away surprises, so all I will say is that you don’t have to reach for parallels to today’s economic straits. The production helps you.

And so do the state and its friendly business lobbyists: After all, what kind of economic development subsidies do ordinary folks get? What regulations and laws will we be freed from? When will legislators and Capitol executives themselves go without government health care?

One final thought: This thoroughly enjoyable and deliciously dark production – both a commercial and artistic success — marks the departure of Madison Opera’s general director Allan Naplan (below). He leaves on a high note to head the Minnesota Opera beginning March. 1. (He leaves town Feb. 15.)

How can you argue with his string of sellouts and almost sellouts, an uninterrupted record of successful productions. It is particularly noteworthy that he has used smaller spaces in Overture to mount Copland’s “Tender Land,” Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” and now Weill’s “Threepenny Opera,” all of which sold out all their performances.

That is a legacy one expects — that one hopes -– will continue.

Want to see what other writers and critics think of the productions?

Here are some links to other summaries of other previews and reviews:

Here is John W. Barker’s review for Isthmus:

Here is William Wineke’s review for Channel 3000:

Here is Greg Hettmansberger’s for local sounds magazine:

Here is Lindsay Christians for 77 Square and The Wisconsin State Journal:

And here is Mike and Jean Muckian’s for Brava magazine:

What did you think of “The Threepenny Opera”?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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