Last night I went to see Essential Opera’s cheap and cheerful production of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. It was a semi staged production in the relatively small Heliconian Hall. Semi-staged in this case meant sung in costume from music stands with very basic blocking. Accompaniment was by Cathy Nosaty on piano and accordion which actually suited the music pretty well.
The singing was good, sometimes very good. Probably the stand out was Laura McAlpine’s Jenny. Of all the singers on display she was the one who seemed most immersed in the sound world of the piece and could vary style and technique appropriately. Erin Bardua’s Lucy Brown was really quite idiomatic too. The others were more consistently operatic which sounded a bit odd in places but worked surprisingly well in, for example David Roth and Heather Jewson’s rather refined refined and bourgeois Peachums. Obviously this approach also worked for the character who are usually sung operatically; Macheath, Brown and Polly for example. The ensembles were all also very effective.
Dramatically it was a bit mixed. I got the impression that there hadn’t been much time or budget for rehearsals and that a lot of things that could have been worked out with a bit of time and direction didn’t quite gel. Some characters worked really well. The Peachums were not exactly canonical but the combination of David Roth’s rather deadpan husband and Jewson’s over the top wife was actually pretty good and worked pretty well with Maureen Batt’s light, fluttery, ditzy Polly. The whores (Beth Hagerman and Rebecca Russell) were funny and apt and the hoods (Joseph Levesque, Shaun Alphonso and Jeremy Ludwig) were effective too. James Levesque, complete with Peter Sellars’ hair, was an aptly wry commentator on the action as The Narrator. What didn’t work so well was the chemistry between Jeremy Ludwig’s Macheath and the other characters, especially Keith Lam’s Chief Brown. The bitterness of the piece was rather undwermined by the lack of any real spark between those two. They are both fine singers, among the best of the night, but seemed a bit adrift dramatically. Finally, it seems no Threepenny Opera production is complete without a drag act. The first time I saw the piece (back in the Mesolithic) it was Rob Gilder’s splendidly campy Mrs. Peachum, last night it was Andrew Pelrine’s splendidly over the top Reverend Kimball. Oh those ear-rings!
Now I’m going to get a bit nit picky. The work was performed with a mixture of English dialogue and sung German. I don’t get it. There are many good, singable English translations of The Threepenny Opera and in a work where comprehension is vital that surely the way to go. Again, the work had been half re-located to Toronto and some of the updating was really rather witty. But then we had the CN Tower and the mayor’s accession rather than the coronation but we still had the Old Bailey and Soho and Macheath “riding across the moors” (or not). To cap it off in the third act finale everyone is rattling on in German about the “king’s messenger on horseback” and the surtitles are translating it as “the mayor’s page”. My German isn’t great but it’s good enough to be jarred by that.
I want to reiterate that, quibbles aside, this was a fun and worthwhile evening and most of the issues would likely have been fixed with more rehearsal time. I think it’s great that people like Maureen Batt and Erin Bardua are putting the effort in to make shows like this possible and frankly I’d much rather see a show like this than an overhyped Met HD broadcast. It’s cheaper too!