[Met Performance] CID:259570

Metropolitan Opera Premiere, New Production

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
Metropolitan Opera House, Fri, November 16, 1979

Debut : Michael Best

In English

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1)
Kurt Weill | Bertolt Brecht
Teresa Stratas

Jimmy Mahoney
Richard Cassilly

Leocadia Begbick
Astrid Varnay

Trinity Moses
Cornell MacNeil

Ragnar Ulfung

Jacob Schmidt
Arturo Sergi

Moneybags Billy
Vern Shinall

Alaska Wolf Joe
Paul Plishka

Toby Higgins
Michael Best [Debut]

Klara Barlow

Nedda Casei

Gwynn Cornell

Joann Grillo

Isola Jones

Louise Wohlafka

Nico Castel

James Levine

John Dexter

Jocelyn Herbert

Lighting Designer
Gil Wechsler

Translation by David Drew and Michael Geliot
Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny received eleven performances this season.
Alternate titles: Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny; Mahagonny.

Production gift of the Gramma Fisher Foundation, Marshalltown, Iowa

Review 1:

Review of Robert Jacobson in the March 8, 1980 issue of Opera News

An odd air of negativism surrounded the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Kurt Weill's "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" on November 16, especially from factions believing that the work did not belong in the house. Is "Mahagonny" a bona fide opera? Is it cabaret? Is it musical theater? These questions flew about furiously before and after the first night. The fact is that the Met, under James Levine's and John Dexter's artistic guidance, chose "Mahagonny" as part of its exploration of major works of the twentieth century, and there can be no denying that, at least on Weill's behalf, this is an important piece deserving to be aired in a great opera house. Whether one agreed with the various artistic decisions made for the production is another question -as is whether "Mahagonny's" impact can come through in these vast reaches.

Certainly, Bertolt Brecht's dramaturgy leaves much to be desired, for he is repetitious and didactic, rambling on far too long. His preachy Marxist ideas now have the air of a period piece, so wanly do they communicate to people of 1979-80. Still, one can view it as a kind of twentieth-century morality play, with the essential message of history being that people don't learn their lessons, no matter how hard they are hammered home. Greed, selfishness, immorality, destruction, corruption are always with us. Brecht's episodic style, his lack of theatrical timing and his two-dimensional characters remain severe liabilities. So it is left to Weill's astonishing score, often dazzling in its subtle timbres (winds etch in color and insinuation, while zither, guitar and saxophone startle the ear), its daring simplicity together with its tragic undercurrent, its peculiar blending of jazz and cabaret with classical techniques, its bittersweet harmonies and its ultimate power in the final dirge for man that make "Mahagonny" viable today while, at the same time, representative of a definite time and place, Germany in the 1920s. With repetition its subtleties truly get under one's skin with their imagination and fantasy.

What was lacking at the Met was the sense of a strong directorial hand to extract the most from Brecht's story about a mythical town of fugitives that crops up somewhere in America where not having money is the greatest crime, where anarchy eventually reigns. Many of Brecht's Expressionistic trappings were evident - stark white lighting, unrealistic minimal sets, bare screens and traveling curtain for projections - but Dexter seemed afraid to go the full distance, mixing Brecht's "epic theater" with Hal Prince-Broadway flash (the Act II scenes of eating, drinking, etc.), while adding in exactly the kind of sentimentality (especially at Mahoney's death) that Brecht deplored.

To make its impact felt as a punch right to the gut, "Mahagonny" must have a taste of nastiness, sardonic rough edges, gritty toughness, biting forcefulness, fierce irony and cynicism. This time it came across as safe, straight, dull. Musically too, Levine opted for a romanticized view of Weill, lending lushness and smooth edges where astringency, snarl and rasp should be heard. Still, he did show enormous love for the music. Jocelyn Herbert's cartoon-like sets and costumes too had the unevenness and indecision of the whole often looking ugly for no apparent reason. David Drew's and Michael Geliot's translation lacked the guttural toughness of the original.

For the most part, the production was cast from strength, even from type. Teresa Stratas made an ideal Jenny, with her unique blend of bravado and vulnerability, her smoky soprano finding the right idiom for Weill's music. Richard Cassilly's burly frame and tenor filled out Jimmy Mahoney to perfection, with Ragnar Ulfung's sleazy Fatty, Cornell MacNeil's gangsterish Trinity Moses, Arturo Sergi's splendid Jacob Schmidt and Paul Plishka's husky Alaska Wolf Joe all inspired. Only Vern Shinall's Moneybags Billy missed the mark. Astrid Varnay's malevolent Leocadia Begbick was a cunning character study, even though her voice was sometimes a trial to the ear. The six girls seemed too well bred for whores.

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