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MUSIC REVIEW

Penny for thoughts on a classic

June 13, 2005|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's "The Threepenny Opera" is already such a savage indictment of capitalism that it would seem to leave Long Beach Opera activist stage director Christopher Alden little to do.

After all, in this dark and cynical work born of the disintegrating 1928 Weimar Republic, Weill and Brecht faulted the capitalistic system for deadening human feeling, corrupting the family and entrapping people in exploitative class relations.

The creators took a few swipes too at the absent god of Christianity who had allowed human misery to exist for millenniums, and like John Gay's 1728 "The Beggar's Opera," which served as their model, burlesqued the conventions of Italian opera as well.

So what could Alden and his collaborators add in the LBO production that opened Saturday at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach? Very little that brought the work to life.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 14, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
"Threepenny Opera" -- The caption for a photograph accompanying a review of Long Beach Opera's "The Threepenny Opera" in Monday's Calendar section misidentified cast members Daphne Malfitano as Suzan Hanson and Michael Bonnabel as Hans Tester.

They seemed to have taken their main cue from Brecht's theory of the alienation effect in which various devices are used to keep the audience from identifying with the characters and to encourage them to watch with critical detachment.

The plot concerns the divvying up of the London underworld. Macheath, the hero of the famous opening "Ballad of Mack the Knife," rules the thieves, pimps and whores and has the police in his back pocket. (An old boyhood friend and army buddy is the police chief.)

J.J. Peachum and his wife license and rule all the beggars, whom they outfit in various ways to provoke maximum sympathy. When Macheath marries Polly, the Peachums' daughter, the coexistence is breached. J.J.'s authority is challenged, so he and his wife vow to destroy Mack.

Although the main events take place on the Queen of England's Coronation Day, designer Andrew Cavanaugh Holland places the action in an anywhere, modern banquet room.

An onstage video camera projects events onto a small screen near the back wall. Two stand-up mikes allow the actors to amplify their lines. Though the characters are supposed to be in London, when Macheath is arrested, he's put into an LAPD squad car.

For that matter, although it's Coronation Day, a recent photo of Elizabeth II is projected onto the screen near the end of the opera. An IRS rather than a British tax form is also shown. Maybe these inconsistencies are meant to suggest universality and timelessness.

Ann Closs-Farley created contemporary costumes -- brown suits for the men, tight-fitting black dresses or hot pants for the women.

As in the original version, characters break the narrative flow to announce the songs they will sing. Macheath, for instance, starts the opera by singing the ballad about his exploits into the video camera, which projects a black-and-white image of his face onto the screen.

This use of technology was one of Alden's techniques of Brechtian alienation or distancing. But the main one was his insistence on the characters speaking with complete lack of emotion or affect. They also often faced forward when talking and delayed their responses.

Unfortunately, there's a thin line between affectless alienation and the appearance of amateurism, and the line was breached in the glacially paced performance Saturday night.

No one necessarily expects great singing in "The Threepenny Opera." The famous Lotte Lenya, Weill's wife, who made a memorable Jenny, the whore whom Macheath declares to be his true love, was more of a cabaret or musical theater person than an opera singer. Still, even by these standards, the casting generally tilted heavily in favor of acting over singing.

Hans Tester was the soft-voiced but menacing Macheath. Philip Littell was a stiff J.J. Peachum. Suzan Hanson sang Polly with strength and accomplishment, even when required to do so while stretched out on the floor. Constance Hauman was a strong Mrs. Peachum, although she had to double as a whore in see-through black nylon netting.

The cast also included Mark Bringelson (Tiger Brown), Michael Bonnabel (Filch/Matt), Chloe Patellis (Nelly), Paul Ellis (Constable Smith/Jake), Samantha Murphy (Lucy Brown) and Daphne Malfitano (her mother, opera singer Catherine Malfitano, was in the audience). John Altieri was a pitch-challenged Jenny.

LBO general director Andreas Mitisek conducted a subdued orchestra.

*

'The Threepenny Opera'

Where: Long Beach Opera at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Price: $55 to $110

Contact: (562) 985-7000 or www.carpenterarts.org

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