As the onstage band launched into the second-act finale of this once-notorious “play with music”, the auditorium lights came up, the entire cast faced the audience and the surtitles fed us the line: “Make sure the poor and needy don’t lose out to the greedy.” How subversive this must have seemed when Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill unveiled Die Dreigroschenoper in Berlin in 1928. By underlining Brecht’s communist agenda, the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s semi-staging suggested that the piece is as relevant today as it was to Weimar Germany. Brecht’s point was that the real criminals in society are not to be found among the poor and needy, for whom life will always be a “vale of tears”, but the high-class swindlers who milk the system and exploit their fellow human beings.
Putting on Die Dreigroschenoper is a challenge. Perform it as low-life entertainment and you miss its poisonous satire. Present it quasi-operatically and it becomes too beautiful. The LPO’s German-language performance, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, directed by Ted Huffman and lit by Malcolm Rippeth, steered clear of both extremes. It started well by dressing the singers in the clothes of the social class to whom Brecht was directing his message – the bourgeoisie, aka the audience. By presenting the narrative as a concert hall cabaret – snappy, fluent, minimalist – it stressed the innocent simplicity of the music and the cynical wit of the words.
The result was a bit too pristine to be genuinely funny or anarchic. It was as if we were being invited to admire a historical artefact rather than engage with a gritty musical comedy. But the casting was faultless. Max Hopp’s suave Narrator anchored the show, while cabaret diva Meow Meow dished up Jenny with gravelly voice and outré décolletage. Mark Padmore gave Macheath a martyr-like stature, leaving John Tomlinson and Felicity Palmer to huff and puff as the Peachums and Allison Bell to purr as Polly.
Framed by Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel and Seven Deadly Sins, all part of a weekend devoted to Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s, this Threepenny Opera brought a much-needed sense of event to Southbank Centre’s sprawling The Rest Is Noise series.