In his Tanglewood summer post as conductor of the Boston Symphony, James Levine has shown quite a gift for galvanising young musicians, adding staged opera performances to the bill last year with a vivacious Così fan tutte. This summer, he programmed The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht satire that he led in a landmark production at the Metropolitan Opera some 30 years ago. But he had to withdraw because of kidney surgery, turning responsibilities over to a Tanglewood “fellow”, Erik Nielsen, who was scheduled to conduct one of the three performances.
Mahagonny is difficult to bring off in the best of circumstances. Yes, its tale about hard-nosed capitalism and its exaltation of money has a timeless relevance but the mythical city in which men are ensnared in the supposed pursuit of pleasure, while nominally somewhere in America, reeks of Weimar Germany, and Brecht’s contribution is often quirky. The satirical element works against one’s taking the characters seriously, even poor Jimmy Mahoney, who long toiled in Alaska only to be executed in Mahagonny for failing to pay his bar bill.
Doug Fritch’s production lets the action play out fluently without impressing much order on to Brecht’s episodic structure, and his sets, which rely on moving cubicles, have a surprisingly homemade look.
The wonderful razzmatazz of Weill’s music and those stay-in-the-mind tunes such as “The Alabama Song” are what keeps the piece going. Nielsen brought zest to the rhythms and a feeling for lyricism but there is no denying that the energy Levine would have supplied is missing.
Nor is Mahagonny a natural for a young cast. Apart from Teresa Stratas, most members of the original Met cast were over 50 and knew how to deal with the work’s edge. Rebecca Jo Loeb sang Jenny with a pleasing soprano that has a welcome touch of grit but needed more personality, and tenor Steven Ebel showed promise as Jimmy. Christin-Marie Hill brought a gutsy mezzo to Mrs Begbick, and Jonathan Beyer, as Trinity Moses, and Adam Sattley, as Jacob Schmidt, also did well.
Without Levine, the one reminder of the Met’s production was the fine English translation by David Drew and Michael Geliot, but supertitles would have helped.
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