Grandeur and Decadence
Mahagonny is back in town, and it’s time to take to the trees. Eighteen years ago, when the steel-edged words and music of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill were last at the L.A. Opera, they were accorded polite if stylish treatment: Kent Nagano’s musical leadership, Dr. Jonathan Miller’s brainy staging, nothing to pin you against the wall or drive needles into your shoulder blades. Things have changed, however; the difference is James Conlon, and the difference is marvelous.
The opera dates from 1930. You can click on Wikipedia and learn the state of Germany at the time, the public attitudes toward Jewish musical intellectuals and left-leaning poets, even the high-riding creators of the recent Threepenny Opera. Mahagonny was a huge hit; it played all over Germany in its first year, but its every appearance was under clouds. A great — i.e., impolite — performance of the opera, such as the one Conlon is leading at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, communicates its agitprop power. The really powerful scenes are those in which its main characters — bums, every one — proclaim the uselessness of everything a prosperous German world in 1930, or a comparable one here today, holds dear. The finale is devastating: The crowd parades with placards past the electrocuted corpse of the so-called hero Jimmy, with its procession of nihilistic messages, and with the main tunes of the opera now made grotesque by enlargement grimacing through the orchestra. Wherever the opera is properly performed, there will be cheers and boos at that moment. “It’s not really an opera, after all,” said somebody in the exit line behind me, and I wish I’d had the hour or two to explain why that person was wrong. This, in brief: It is opera, and superior of its kind, because — for one of several reasons — at that moment there is an awesome, wrenching encounter between the thudding of Brecht’s words and the hammering of Weill’s music; they are an exact match, as the words and music of Cherubino’s “Voi che sapete” formed their exact match 144 years before.
Pierre Boulez once said that if he were running a major opera house, he would burn all existing repertory and run the house on nothing but continual performances of Mahagonny. I know of worse ideas, except that after a week, Boulez’s city would be destroyed, wiped out by the hot emotional winds that howl through this extraordinary artwork. The excellence of Conlon’s conducting, which I have not heard in previous Mahagonnys here or at the Met, is his success in harnessing those hot winds, not only in the orchestra but also in much of his cast. Audra McDonald, not so much girly as a tough broad from the start, is the best Jenny ever; Anthony Dean Griffey is a splendid Jimmy; Patti LuPone (whom I haven’t had time to write love lyrics to for her Sweeney Todd on Broadway) is the Leocadia Begbick of my dreams. The director, by the way, is John Doyle, also of Sweeney.
Allow me some memories. When I arrived in Los Angeles in 1980 (intending to remain one year, but that’s another story), Kurt Weill was very much a living memory. The place still teemed with great old Berliners; soon they would be gone. Margot Aufricht, widow of the man who had first staged Die Dreigroschenoper, was a smiling, garrulous presence in her small house in Beverly Hills. Robert Vambéry, whose play Der Kuhhandel had become A Kingdom for a Cow, Weill’s last European production (and most abject flop), was on hand among the émigré contingent.
So was Felix Jackson. As Felix Joachimson, he had been a noted Berlin essayist and critic, and had written the text for a Kurt Weill musical, Na Und? (So What?), that had completely disappeared. The story he told was that Hans Heinsheimer, Weill’s publisher at Vienna’s Universal Editions, had advised the composer to take the manuscript and drop it off a bridge into the Danube. Maybe Weill did just that; at least Joachimson, who changed his name to Jackson, married the singing star Deanna Durbin and wrote some of her movies, loved to tell the story. I could never get him to tell me the whole scenario of Na Und?, however, just a few bits. Neither would Heinsheimer, who immigrated to New York and gossiped a blue streak about every other aspect of Weill’s life.
Anyhow, meeting all those living mementos inspired me to assemble a radio documentary, which KUSC broadcast to fair acclaim in 1982. Kim Kowalke, the renowned Weill scholar, was still teaching here at Occidental — he’s now at the University of Rochester — and he helped me with tapes of music that wasn’t otherwise available at that time. Back in Rockland County, New York, before moving out here, I had become pals with Lotte Lenya, Weill’s widow, and had miles of tape of her boilerplate reminiscences. With all that material at hand, I turned out some pretty red-hot radio, if I do say so, but not so red-hot as this new Mahagonny. These folks really know what they’re doing.