Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Staatsoper's Mahagonny: oh, don't ask why

Wiener Staatsoper, 05/02/2012

Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (new production)

Elisabeth Kulman | Leocadia Begbick
Angelika Kirchschlager | Jenny Hill
Christopher Ventris | Jimmy Mahoney
Tomasz Konieczny | Dreieinigkeitsmoses
Herwig Pecoraro | Fatty
Norbert Ernst | Jack O’Brien
Clemens Unterreiner | Sparbüchsen Billy
Il Hong | Alaska Wolf Joe
Wolfram Igor Derntl | Toby Higgins
Ileana Tonca, Valentina Nafornita, Ildikó Raimondi, Juliette Mars, Stephanie Houtzeel, Monika Bohinec | Girls
Heinz Zednik | Announcer

Ingo Meztmacher | Conductor
Jérôme Deschamps | Director

With woefully little substance separating this staging from a concert performance with bizarrely awful costumes, the Wiener Staatsoper’s new Mahagonny was a poor effort even for a director who doesn’t understand German, Brechtian theatre, or Weill’s music. Welcome to Dominique Meyer’s Parisian cronies, part 5.

Mahagonny is notoriously difficult to stage well, with its three elements – culinary, genre-satirical culinary, and ideological – which, as Lydia Goehr remarks in her excellent essay on the opera, should ideally be ‘rolled into a thick dialectical sandwich.’ Failing that – and with Brecht, competent infidelity really is better than a mangling of his theatrical principles – a director may conceivably run with just one, and purely culinary needn’t necessarily be emptied of content, while self-consciously tendentious can be managed without sliding into Marxist claptrap (on that note I look forward to Bieito’s Vlaames production coming to Graz next season). That instead this indecisive and lazy production only serves as an excuse for the likes of Wilhelm Sinkovicz to heap spectacularly ill-informed abuse on a brilliantly-scored masterpiece and its sophisticated aesthetic discourse counts for me as the low point of Dominique Meyer’s tenure so far. With the Staatsoper it’s always two steps forward and one back with this non-traditional 20th-century repertoire – Cardillac under Meyer and Die tote Stadt under Holender count as successes while the disaster of this Mahagonny echoes that of their Günter Krämer Jonny spielt auf ten years ago. But as important as it is to have decent Mozart rep, these failures disappoint just as much, if not more, for fortifying the agenda-driven conventional wisdom that these works are best ghettoized in the Volksoper. Forget the historical reasons why, in Vienna of all cities, this shouldn’t be allowed to happen; great operas like Mahagonny and Mathis require no special pleading, least of all when one considers some of the trash the Staatsoper has on its books. 

I could go into painstaking detail about work-shy director Jérôme Deschamps and what he did or failed to do in every scene, but it would be a lengthy and unearned autopsy. Almost all of the stage directions are ignored, though there is a Brecht curtain which falls between the two stools of failing to cover up scenery changes while making no attempt to strip them of their artifice. I suppose some mention should be made of Vanessa Sannino’s costumes, which point towards parodied aestheticism. But like other efforts to satisfy the Viennese costume fetish there is something sincere about their grotesquerie 
– an honest appeal to Viennese taste, and not just during the ball season – particularly the Mahagonny girls’ kitschified Stepford frocks. Widow Begbick I have seen done both in matronly fashion and as something saucier, but Elisabeth Kulman in a figure-hugging little red number came across less the aging madam than someone who never really left the business. The less said about Jenny’s multiple wardrobe catastrophes the better, except to say that having evaded the work’s ideological content our director now dabbles incoherently in the culinary and wants the credit for that dialectical sandwich.

We need only set that claim against the total lack of action on stage to see how empty it is. Jenny wasn’t the least bit interested in the way to the next whisky bar – all Deschamps had her and the girls do in the Alabama Song was strike a pose and stand there uncomfortably, and inevitably they started to fidget and look awkwardly out of character. Static blocking and deadening straight lines are nothing new at the Staatsoper but never before have these things provoked visible collective embarrassment. The curtain clumsily separated Begbick from the Rich Man’s Hotel in Act I Scene 9, not that this was conceived with any Brechtian interruption in mind. The cloud the men watch in this scene is mentioned in the libretto, though why such importance should be attached to a fleeting reference escapes me, and particularly when that involves such poorly managed blocking that the announcer/commentator’s wonderful ‘Das ist die ewige Kunst!’ must be delivered as a throwaway line. The hurricane was your average budget conical bedsheet operated by the fly crew, and though we might have had the ensemble scared by something that ostensibly isn’t scary, yet another rudimentary Brechtian trick passed Deschamps by. The four pleasure scenes were ineptly literal and it was indeed regrettable that Tomasz Konieczny had to clamber down from the makeshift boxing ring with his back turned to the audience, rendering his great line Ich bedaur’ es! inaudible. 

Elisabeth Kulman sang Begbick sensually, which is fine when supported in some way either by Personenregie or force of personality, but she never cut more than a timid figure. Her more predatory vocal stylings were effective though, particularly on the insidious ‘Ihr bekommt leichter das Gold von Männern als von Flüssen!’, which sounded every bit like the profit motive set to music. Earnest-sounding Christopher Ventris didn’t fare so well: the music gave him no difficulties, but his singing and stage manner were introverted in a consistently undramatic way, even if some benefit of the doubt may be given for acting indifferently to Jenny in their first scene and intoning a flat and passive ‘aber etwas fehlt’ – no Brechtian Gestus, but certainly something counter-intuitive which seemed to be compensating for the absence of direction elsewhere. But the lack of force on ‘Du darfst’ didn’t really fit with Kulman’s accusing ‘Du meinst also, es war falsch, daß ich etwas verboten habe?!’, and he didn’t convince as a man pleading for his life in Act III.

Angelika Kirchschlager’s Jenny should have been the vocal highlight, but she suffered the brunt of the lifeless direction, daft costumes, and Ingo Metzmacher’s stranger ideas. The plodding tempo of the Alabama Song remained unaltered going into the refrain, which was perhaps just as well because any slower at that point and it would have ground to a halt. Kirchschlager tried her best to rescue it with her individual blend of lyrical and post-Lenya stylings, though cutting short the note on the ‘lost’ of ‘We’ve lost our good old Mamma’ perplexed. (It made it sound as if she’d misplaced her.) But asked about her wishes, her ‘Es ist vielleicht zu früh, davon zu reden’ was poignantly knowing, and she sang an authoritative ‘Ein Mensch ist kein Tier!’ Her girls – unusually, Staatsoper soloists – were all excellent. Heinz Zednik may have been a great character tenor in his time, but as the announcer he lacked stage presence and didn’t speak up enough. The Staatsoper should have brought somebody in from the Burgtheater for this role. Supporting male roles were all solid, though Clemens Unterreiner stood out, as he has a habit of doing – his forcefully sung interaction with Ventris at the end was the only moment in this production where I felt moved to care about what was happening on stage.

The orchestra was much more committed than I expected, tapping naturally into Weill’s idiom and producing a fuller symphonic sound at appropriate moments elsewhere. The character of the counterpoint sounded as fun and colourful as Ludus Tonalis. And of course at the end Weill leaves it to the orchestra to destroy Mahagonny, which the Philharmoniker did with unstoppable force and intensity. Ingo Metzmacher deserves to share in the credit for much for this; just a shame about his more ill-advised ideas, mostly to do with tempi and dynamics, and some appalling cuts to the score which he surely could have prevented.

Image credit: Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn


  1. Hi
    An interesting review, though not my favourite opera, and I’m in compete agreement with your take on the conductor. I have to say though that I'm surprised that you take issue with the fact that almost all of the stage directions are ignored. Surely these days no-one takes them seriously, certainly not Konwitschny, Bieto, Herheim, et al; why should M. Deschamps?

    1. I think it's a myth that Regie directors always ignore stage directions, but whatever. Deschamps was irritating in this respect because his approach was avowedly representational - the green moon and that pathetic prop of a cloud passing haltingly across the backdrop - and yet, inexplicably, we were shorted things which I consider to be more interesting, like the projections and placards Brecht asks for.