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OPERA REVIEW

`City' of bad dreams

The savagery of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's satire doesn't quite get its due.

February 12, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

"Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny," the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht masterpiece of urban outrage and revolutionary 1931 hybridization of opera and musical theater, was given by Los Angeles Opera seemingly the right ingredients to make it rise Saturday night.

John Doyle, whose recent virtuosic productions of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" and "Company" have proven unusually fresh and direct for Broadway, directed. Audra McDonald, who builds a bridge (to steal a line from her latest Nonesuch album) between Broadway and the lyric stage better than anyone of her generation, has the makings of being the most seriously seductive Jenny since Teresa Stratas.

Patti LuPone, another Broadway star, may not have been born to sing the cynical Madam Begbick, but she is unquestionably a great choice to play her. James Conlon, the company's new music director, has a special affinity for the composers and artists the Nazis didn't like. This dangerously abrasive and black-humored study in decadence and mob mentality adamantly pushed all the Nazis' buttons.

Naturally, curiosity over the production has been high and widespread. Hollywood stars and New York managers stood out at Saturday's premiere. Yet despite the production's many first-rate performances -- including a brilliant one by tenor Anthony Dean Griffey as the chump, Jimmy -- "Mahagonny" doesn't rise on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage. It falls.

The work is strong social satire and even stronger social medicine. There were in the 1930s no operatic models for it. Brecht and Weill had already broken new theatrical ground with "The Threepenny Opera," but "Mahagonny," while including many elements of popular musical theater, is more operatic. Weill takes what he needs musically from wherever he feels appropriate; Bach and the cabaret are equally useful for conveying the depths of the human condition and those to which we can sink.

Begbick, Trinity Moses and Fatty the Bookkeeper, fugitives from justice, build a city when their car breaks down in forsaken Midwest America. They start with a brothel and let the rest naturally flow from there. Workers from Alaska find their way. Jimmy is one.

The laws are of the jungle. Sins grease the economy. Money is manna. Jimmy's greatest crime is not falling in love with the prostitute Jenny but rather not having the money to pay his booze bill. For that, he must die.

"Mahagonny" does not cringe. Brecht's text penetrates society's ills like a drill into hard soil. Weill's score is nasty. It is now-and-then tender but never soft. It, too, penetrates, but more like a knife into soft flesh.

Doyle and his crew do cringe. They don't penetrate so much as make a few pin pricks, a technique that turns out to work much better for Sondheim's wit than for Brecht and Weill's profundity. Doyle's conceit with "Sweeney Todd" and "Company" were to have the cast also serve as the band. When not singing or speaking, they play their instruments (LuPone in "Sweeney" toots on the tuba). All are on their toes, and that gives the shows a special immediacy.

His Sondheim is pure chamber theater, working best in small spaces or on Broadway for those sitting in the front row. The Chandler, I suspect, cows Doyle. There is no immediacy in it, and he paints in exactly the Broadway broad strokes his Sondheim shows avoid.

He places each act in a different milieu. Mahagonny rises in the '30s, it succumbs to gluttony, violence and avarice as Las Vegas in the '50s and falls as Anytown, USA, today. This might have been a workable conceit were it more fully developed and had it not seemed so yesterday. Indeed, it was just a couple of months ago that L.A. Opera mounted an updated "Manon" that did the same thing.

Mark Bailey decorates the stage blandly -- a beam or two for the original Mahagonny, some Vegas neon and a large video screen for a modern day trial. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes are kitschy. Dan Moses Schreier's sound design is uneven. A hurricane's sound effects are in surround and continue through intermission, which is a nice touch. But the singers' volume rises and falls unnaturally. The tone quality is off. The orchestra is not amplified and hence sounds as though it were in a distant room. Likewise the full male chorus.

But Broadway's most pernicious influence is the silliness. LuPone's Begbick is not the tough character of Brecht but a gum-chewing Mae West type, all irony, no iron. She is good at that, but I'd bet she would be good at a lot more. She is not cut out for the music, which should not be a problem either.

If this work is being adapted, the score should have been adapted for her as well, although that would require the goodwill of the Kurt Weill Foundation (good luck). I was sorry, too, that the company used the foundation-approved Michael Feingold English translation and not one more modern and cutting.

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