Threepenny Opera, Brooklyn

Should I wait before
citing the superb performers with their rictus-expressions and balletic, Dr.
Caligari-meets-Charlie Chaplin slapstick, the exquisite stage pictures and the
orchestrated horselaughs, burps and farts that emerged from the orchestra, the
tidily synchronized sound effects of a cane whipping through the air or a
curtain pulled on its links, the nasty ancient jokes that seemed to hit targets
as new as this morning on Wall Street right in the gold? For me, no lover of
Wilson’s glacial opera stagings (Lohengrin, Einstein on the
), Threepenny went by as swiftly as a smutty shaggy dog joke
with many a guffaw before the punchline, and I’d gladly see it again. No;
I think I’ll start with my interpretation of the piece and its place in
“operatic” history. Reviews of the performers will be the

The Beggar’s Opera, the Gay-Pepusch satire on opera
as practiced (most notably by Handel) in London in 1728, tickled
many a funnybone of its time with the princes and sultans and enchantresses of
opera transformed into pimps, thieves, con-men and ladies of dubious repute.
The dialogue was underworld slang and the tunes were pop songs of the day.
Handel’s operatic reputation took ages to recover, and the threat of
satire was always a-lurk in London thereafter for any artist taken too
seriously. But the audiences who laughed were not the beggars or street people
John Gay depicted on stage: They were the same middle and upper classes who had
admired the no longer chic Handel.

Precisely two centuries later, in 1928 in Weimar Berlin, that hotbed of
cynicism, social criticism and moral decay, Beggar’s Opera was
reborn. Kurt Weill, a trained symphonist with an interest in jazz, and the
Leftist playwright Bertolt Brecht transformed the London beggars into the dregs
of Dreigroschenoper, satirizing the self-devouring of capitalist
excess in a fable that epitomized their time and place. It also made a star of
Weill’s lover, Lotte Lenya. An appropriately gritty film from 1931
survives, and a couple of the songs (“Mack the Knife,”
“Pirate Jenny”) are standards. The only artistic interpretation of
the Weimar era that is better known, at least in this country, is Kander and
Ebb’s Cabaret, whose songs and personalities are prettified
versions of the ones that shocked (and delighted) Berlin. Not coincidentally,
the original Cabaret also starred Lenya.

Lenya’s participation in the “opera” is significant. Her
voice may have been trained, but she was by no stretch of the imagination an
opera singer. That was more than okay for the parts she sang; they are hardly
bel canto roles. And throughout the Robert Wilson production, recently given at
the Brooklyn Academy of Music opera house, I found myself wondering if the
Brecht-Weill piece is an opera at all (most of it is spoken dialogue), and
marveling at how the cast, none of them singing in an operatic manner, used
their voices, cracked, exaggerated, twisted, sneering, insinuating, whining,
caricatures in both dialogue and song, to express the antisocial,
anti-sentimental story they had to tell. Threepenny Opera may be an
anti-opera, but it is certainly music drama and vocal theater, thrilling,
mythic, in your face.

No small part of the shock and the humor of the original Beggars’
was provided by the contrast of its characters and their
motivations—as well as their manner of singing—with the highfalutin
pleasures of Handelian opera. Trained voices and their exquisite display were
hardly the point of the songs of vengeance and sex and the lust for gold. The
outrageous conclusion, with Macheath obliged (because it’s an opera) to
live happily ever after with two girls who hate each other in order to suit the
Handelian lieto final, undermined the aristocratic operatic morals. It
was a dose of naturalism (then an unknown bird on the stage) to cure if not
hack to death the artifice of the reigning form. Hacking actual reigning
monarchs came a bit later.

THREEPENNY5_PC_STEPHANIE-BE.gifRuth Glˆss as the Old Prostitute, Stefan Kurt as Macheath and Angela Winkler as Jenny

Over the centuries, each new theatrical step towards the
“natural” has made the artificial seem more formal, more distant
(Handel and his contemporaries were no longer performed) until a new sort of
naturalism reigned. On the spoken stage, Scribe abandoned the royal court for
the bourgeois drawing room, then Ibsen and Chekhov began to talk of things
unfit for the drawing room ideal. To sum up this acceptable standard of
“naturalism,” Brecht and Weill (and not only they) invaded the
lowest reaches of society, with music of a studied grossness. Once naturalism
has reached this extreme (and movies had created another revolution), their
chic and their ability to shock soon vanished as well. Even before the triumph
of the modern style of Regie-theater, Dreigroschenoper and its
Brecht-Weill successors (Happy End, Mahagonny, Seven
Deadly Sins
) helped to invent a new theater that could only be absorbed
and defused by presentation in a new artificial style. This was the occasion of
Richard Foreman’s vividly formal production of Threepenny Opera
with Raul Julia at the Beaumont Theater (a hit), of the John Dexter version on
Broadway with Sting and Maureen McGovern (a flop), and—now—of the
Robert Wilson interpretation come to New York.

Wilson, like Foreman, has his own style of artifice, imposed to some extent
on every work he encounters: Philip Glass’s Einstein on the
, Wagner’s Lohengrin and Parsifal,
Debussy’s PellÈas et MÈlisande, the Stein-Thomson Four
Saints in Three Acts
. His encounters with the slow movement and slowly
gathering message of Wagner’s dramas might have seemed a perfect fit on
paper; in practice, even with performers like Ben Heppner and Karita Mattila,
there was a steady seepage of dramatic excitement. At the New York premiere of
Einstein, more of the audience was outside the theater, talking about
the production (scathingly or otherwise), than remained inside, enduring it.

In contrast, Weill and Brecht have a very swift-moving theater, a theater
that holds our attention with much activity, roundabout schemes and betrayals,
slowing down barely at all for sarcastic songful commentary and reflection on
the action. This, set against typically Wilsonian bars of light (for the
shelves in Peachum’s pawnshop or the rafters in Macheath’s garret
or the bars on his prison cell) and enacted with a set of formalized emaciated
staggers, sexy swivels, dancing wobbles and leaning crowds, has us riveted,
paying determined attention to the stories being enacted. The acting is
anything but natural, is cartoonish and expressionistic at once, to the extent
that the most vulgar gestures are as polite as silhouettes, the most monstrous
jokes evoke giggles. These people are not real, and for once none of them
attempt to be. Lucy Brown reacts to Mack’s betrayal with a face like
Munch’s The Scream. Celia Peachum rolls her considerable bulk
about in a parody of both aging sexuality and desperate petit-bourgeois
propriety. Mack himself never changes his grin, whether he is seducing,
betraying, murdering or being betrayed. The skull-like Tiger Brown indicates
only with a voiced jowlishness his regret at stiffing his old friend. Jenny
seems too battered by years as a whore to have any emotion left whether selling
her lover to his enemies or rescuing him. It’s a puppet show, a carnival
Faust for open-mouthed children, and when real issues like corporate
wealth and its exploitation of poverty come up—as the subjects did, to
much delighted laughter during performances while the Occupy Wall Street
movement camped out not two miles to the west of BAM—it is perhaps to
show us how close our lives have become to caricature, to send up the whole
notion of a “naturalistic” theater that dares to ignore our current

In the large and excellent cast, all choreographed to suit a set of
invisible furnishings and doors, Traute Hoess, the drunk and Machiavellian Mrs.
Peachum, was perhaps the standout. She had, after all, more to do, more to
connive, more to betray. Her hypocrisy was so very enthusiastic. Stefan Kurt
performed Macheath with joy in his own villainy and egoism. Axel Werner was
Tiger Brown, the skeletal old comrade, a chief of police whose lot of betrayals
is not a happy one. Stefanie Stappenbeck, as Polly, symbolically renounced her
illusions by changing her expression on finding another woman in her new
husband’s bed—but if she can sing “Pirate Jenny,” how
deluded can she be? Angela Winkler managed to look and sing as if she had lived
in a garret with a pimp for forty years. Betraying him and cuddling him by
turns draws no reaction from her, no alteration of the set line of her mouth
and stringy hair: a dead soul. The balletic crooks in Mack’s band deserve
credit for their spooky chorus line.

I have to admit a genuine regret that the happy ending was
retained—the evening seemed to cry out for a hanging. But whom would you
hang? Macheath the thieving, murdering bigamous pimp, or his society and its
more subtle criminals? At least these guys could make us laugh. None of the fat
cats they aped and mocked are capable of that.

John Yohalem

image_description=Stefanie Stappenbeck as Polly and Stefan Kurt as Macheath [Photo by Stephanie Berger courtesy of Brooklyn Academy of Music]
product_title=Kurt Weill: Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera)
product_by=Macheath: Stefan Kurt; Peachum: J¸rgen Holtz; Mrs. Peachum: Traute Hoess;
Polly: Stefanie Stappenbeck; Tiger Brown: Axel Werner; Jenny: Angela Winkler; Lucy: Anna Graenzer; Filch: Georgios Tsivanoglou. Production, direction, light concept by Robert Wilson. The Threepenny Orchestra. At Brooklyn Academy of Music, performance of October 7.
product_id=Above: Stefanie Stappenbeck as Polly and Stefan Kurt as Macheath

All photos by Stephanie Berger courtesy of Brooklyn Academy of Music