The recent production of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny at the Metropolitan Opera was a marvelous artistic triumph. Like any great work of art, it is located in a particular place and timein this case (referring to inspiration rather than literal dramatic events) Weimar Germany on the eve of the Nazi ascendancy. Yet while the same ideas and inspiration could seem dated, naive, even sophomoric after so many years, in the hands of true artists they speak urgently to all people of all times.
The work was sung in Englishnot a huge departure from Met practice, as two of the original six Songspiel pieces were originally written in (bad) English. Even so, the performances were poorly attended. This was unfortunate, because those who did see it witnessed a performance masterful in all aspects.
To begin with, Mahagonny features a coruscating score that is compelling from beginning to end. In the words of Andrew Porter's Stagebill notes, Weill's music "gets under [the] skin." Indeed, throughout the evening one felt the music, one was kept invigorated and enthralled in the unrelenting grip of this remarkable compositionwhether soothed by the eerie strains of the "Alabama Song" or driven headlong by the hurricane intensity of the act one storm.
The orchestra pit held a most unusual ensemblea mere six violins, with violas and cellos in a narrow ring around the conductor, allowing the trumpets to face the house rather than peal from the wing, and a veritable Noah's Ark of every instrument available at the time. This provided for ingenious combinations, which Weill exploited to the fullest: a tenor, alto and soprano saxophone trio, Teresa Stratas' melody doubled by a steel guitar, an accordion doubling the baritone on stage. James Levine guided this assemblage with sensitivity to the power and precision of the score and the talents of the varied musicians at his disposal.
The ideal of any opera is a seamless integration of instruments and vocals, with the orchestra neither overpowering the voices nor being subservient to the point of neglecting its own story through the colors and textures either supporting the singer or providing subtext. In spite of Brecht's best intentions of upsetting traditional operatic form, Weill in the end accomplished, in my view, one of the finest realizations of this ideal. He even goes beyond it here, as the singers and orchestra form one organic, musical whole. Thus, it was more than symbolic that the act one chorus members were seated in the pit, for they are instruments too. And it didn't matter whether the singing was performed by a vocal soprano or by the alto saxophone, for the saxophone is also a voice here. Each musician, whether on stage or in the pit, had his role in the musical whole. Particularly strong were the six hookers, played by six accomplished sopranos and used by orchestrator and conductor to sublime effect, at times softly humming background music while vamping in their strumpet costumes, at other times stepping forth in unison like a brass section to make a monumental point.
And what a cast of singers we witnessed on the stage. Teresa Stratas, who originated Jenny at the Met in 1979, is a goddess. One of the great singing actresses of all time, she endowed her role with total commitment and a riveting intensity, savoring every nuance in her quiet, restrained passages while displaying remarkable strength when called for. Helga Dernesch's more powerful soprano made a perfect contrast in the role of Begbick. Gary Lakes, a noted Wagnerian, made good use of his natural American accent to convey the sympathetic hick Jimmy Mahoney. Timothy Noble (another singing actor) as Trinity Moses, Alan Held as Billy and Jan-Hendrik Rootering as Alaska Wolf Joe all sang in clear and commanding voices. Richard Versalle, the tenor who collapsed at the beginning of the Makropoulos Case, sang a worthy Jacob Schmidt in the act two eating scene.
The staging, directed by John Dexter with sets and costumes by Jocelyn Herbert, was decidedly modernist for the Met. Although certain attempts at kitsch, such as the projected scene titles and the airplane plot of the hurricane, were irritating, for the most part the sets were easily assimilable and worked quite naturally and progressively up to an awesome finale.
Yet what made the sets work so naturally is also what ultimately rendered such a bleak and potentially depressing story so triumphant in the end. Porter's comment that "the end is not despair but a joyful proclamation of belief in mankind's essential goodness" is well taken. Students of Russian literature are familiar with the "divine spark" that illumines the sordid goings-on in the stories of Dostoevsky. One such student, Richard Taruskin, recently discussed this concept as specifically applied to opera in a recent issue of Opera News ("Another World," December 23, 1995).
Taruskin borrows from Carolyn Abbate a philosophical structure in which operatic music is divided into the "phenomenal" and the "noumenal." The former applies to music that is part of the dramatic events, heard both by the audience and the characters on stage, while the latter describes what is oblivious to those characters and heard only by the audience. This "noumenal" music provides us with the context of an "other world" by which we see through and interpret the dramatic events, rendering us, in Taruskin's term, "clairvoyant." While some might find such mental dichotomies difficult to reconcile with reality, it is undeniable that something else is happening besides, in addition to, what is taking place on the stage. In opera, this something else is of course manifested most palpably in what makes opera opera: the music.
In the concluding scene of Mahagonny, the disintegration of the social fabric is indicated by crowds of demonstrators carrying signs, each one contradicting the other. One column proceeds from one wing, another from the other, and both circle the front of the stage and exit into the audience, marching to the back of the housea rather banal theatrical trick by now. However, when the back of the stage opens up for a third horde, revealing the innards of the opera house's workshops, and the house lights come glaring on while the orchestra labors furiously on a glorious finale, our illusions of theater are sundered and we witness the integration not just of singers and orchestra but of stage and house, of production and audience. The "other world" becomes reality: it is our world, our small, great world. And this world we take with us as we depart into the cold winter night.
No more can be asked of a work of art.