Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Sin City

Daniel Snyder and Amy Burton (both at left) get down with the cast
in Mahagonny. (Photo by Clive Grainger.)

Decades before the Mob dreamed of Vegas, Brecht and Weill conjured The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, their pointed critique of the contradictions of capitalism. Needless to say, their modern-day Sodom-for-pay ran afoul of certain fascists (despite its being inspired by Weimar, the Nazis attempted to destroy every copy of the score), and while some of the show’s melodies penetrated the popular psyche (everyone knows The Alabama Song, or at least the Doors’ version), not much was heard of Mahagonny for years. Now, however, with “the left” discredited, and global capitalism triumphant, Mahagonny’s forked tongue drips with revived relevance, and productions have begun popping up all over – most recently in our own Cutler Majestic, where Gil Rose’s Opera Boston led a penetrating, if not always gripping, revival last weekend.

The quick take on Mahagonny is that it’s a splash of acid in the face of capitalism – but on closer consideration, it’s rather more than that; in fact, what makes this musical (or the opera - it toes an unsteady line between the two forms) truly disturbing is that it’s so sympathetic to what makes Mahagonny run. Founded by crooks on the lam, somewhere in an American wasteland between Pensacola and Alaska (yeah, Vegas comes close enough!), this amoral Gomorrah is a peaceable kingdom in which all tastes are slaked and none are judged – not only a hedonist’s dream, but also a libertarian’s; one can easily imagine Andrew Sullivan and William Bennett brushing shoulders on its streets.

Mahagonny, therefore, is simply the embodiment of utility – and thus director Sam Helfrich has smartly visualized it not as the Bellagio but as a loading dock – one that, as the show’s publicity states, you’d find on the backside of a Wal*Mart. Indeed, Helfrich has denuded the musical of any glints of “decadent” Kander & Ebb-like tinsel; the lights are the cheapest available (fluorescent), and port-a-potties substitute for real plumbing - and can do double duty as sex cubbies! The director carries this conceptual rigor into the staging – he favors cold tableaux that nicely echo the doomy vibe in Weill’s chants; but this parallelism did little to alleviate a certain incipient stasis in the composer's idiom (and Rose conducted with only intermittent vigor). Add to the mix a noticeable strain in key voices and an acoustically problematic pit, and you have an evening that sometimes flagged in its attack – or rather rose and fell with the book and score.

Still, at its best, this Mahagonny was riveting. Few operas can match its honesty about moral paradox, and Helfrich and his cast were utterly committed to Brecht’s dissection of “the laws of human pleasure.” The musical follows the doomed path of Jimmy MacIntyre, an innocent lumberjack who comes to town with his buddies to burn through their hard-earned cash. Needless to say, Mahagonny – personified in fallen woman Jenny Smith, Jimmy’s main squeeze - makes hungry where she most satisfies, and Jimmy soon senses the city has something in common with hell: beneath the hustle, it’s a spiritual vacuum. Of course Brecht and Weill, with the Nazis soon to be jackbooting about in the lobby, had no illusions about the salves of mystical idealism, either – and neither do the good people of Mahagonny; when Jimmy starts blowing off, a typhoon coincidentally starts blowing off the coast. The city is spared, but Jimmy and his pals aren’t; one by one, they’re picked off by its vicissitudes; one dies of gluttony, another in the boxing ring – until finally Jimmy is brought up on capital charges: he can’t pay his bar bill (the city's one ironclad law). While murderers get off with a slap on the wrist, Jimmy gets death, because, after all, “the worst criminal in the human race is the man with no money.” In this production, he helpfully clambers into a dumpster for his own execution (his buddies have been disposed of in the same manner) – but Jimmy's death brings no peace to Mahagonny, which doesn’t so much self-destruct (after all, Vegas is still with us) as descend into a pit of nihilism; as the curtain falls, its citizens are jerking spasmodically, like broken automatons, which is exactly what they are.

But at least they’re self-aware automatons, and none more so than Joyce Castle, who projected the perfect level of down-low hauteur as Leocadia Begbick, the city’s founder and guiding light. In acting chops she really had no peer, although Amy Burton’s soprano was easily the most memorable voice onstage, and just right for Jenny Smith in its mournful, faintly metallic allure. As Jimmy MacIntyre, meanwhile, Daniel Snyder sounded stretched here and there, but still powered through his last-night-on-earth aria. He was ably abetted (indeed, overpowered) by Stephen Salters as “Bank Account Bill,” while Matthew DiBattista and Tom O’Toole provided solid back-up. The chorus could have been larger – clearly Mahagonny stretched not only some voices, but also the resources of up-and-coming Opera Boston – but brought a chilling conviction to the moments of collective self-realization that stud the opera. “No one can help us, or you,” they intone at the finale, and it was hard not to believe them.

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