Hell’s Fury(*) is a two man show about Hanns Eisler conceived and created by Tim Albery. It’s focussed on his time in the United States and, somewhat, on his return to the DDR. It combines songs from the Hollywood Songbook (poems by Brecht and others set by Eisler), dialogue and projections to tell the story of Eisler’s arrival in Hollywood, his work in the US, his deportation as a result of the “work” of the House Un-American Activities Committee and his return to the GDR and struggles to come to terms with the Stalinist culturecrats leading ultimately to drink, depression and death.
What better way to celebrate Kurt Weill’s birthday than listening to his songs, cabaret style, with a beer or three. Well that’s what we did on Saturday as Blitzkrieg Cabaret opened a new run of Saturday afternoon shows at the Dakota Tavern.
We got three singers; Danie Friesen, Hilary June Hart, Jackson Welchner supported by Nick Donovan (drums), Colin Frotten (piano), and Andrew Downing (bass) with Hilary also chipping in on the accordion on occasion. While Danie is a classically trained singer, Hilary and Jackson sound more comfortable in a jazzier idiom. That, plus the make up of the band meant that the show tended to the “Sinatraesque” version of Weill rather than, say, the grittiness of Pabst’s Dreigroschenoper movie. This was reflected in both choice of translation and performing style. I think this works for some of Weill’s stuff but it doesn’t work for me so well with the Brecht lyrics. I’ll go for Marx over McCarthy anytime! Other people may feel differently.
I went to the first show of Soup Can Theatre’s presentation of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera at the Monarch Tavern yesterday. It was an interesting take. Three performers took all the roles in a much shortened concert version. Quite a few numbers were cut and the dialogue was replaced by a very compressed spoken linking narrative. This was a fund raiser and I think it’s fair to say that there was probably minimal if any rehearsal involved which showed in a presentation that had some nice individual touches but not a lot of cohesion.
So it’s early November and a recital titled Songs of Remembrance. One might of expected something like the program Chris Maltman presented just down Philosophers’ Walk last year but no, Monica Whicher and Rachel Andrist’s program was gentler. Dare we say “more feminine”? This concert was about remembrance of childhood and love; happy and not so happy. Framed by Roger Quilter’s settings of Blake we got two “concocted cycles” drawn from very diverse sources; English, French and German texts; art song and popular song; composers from Schubert to Richard Rogers and Hans Eisler. It was effective.
New kids on the block , The Friends of Gravity, presented their first show last night at St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church on Dundas East. It was a silent film themed take on Weill’s Die Sieben Todsünden. Stephanie Conn sang both Anna I and Anna II in front of a film screen showing black and white film clips shot by Scott Gabriel for the show, replacing the ballet of the original. The Family, who pop up mostly to criticize the Annas were sung by Charles Fowler, Christopher Wattam, Bryan Martin and William Lewans. Scott Gabriel conducted his own arrangement of the score for a six piece band including accordion and ukulele.
Following on from yesterday’s Der fliegende Holländer showing at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema I followed up with them about future plans for the ROH opera broadcasts. Here’s the scoop though dates may change.
June 28th. Brecht/Weill The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. This is a new production by John Fulljames with Mark Wrigglesworth conducting. The cast includes Anne-Sofie von Otter, Willard White and Christine Rice. It’s going to be sung in English.
July 26th. Puccini La Bohème. It’s the old John Copley production dating from 1975 (which in turn replaced an 1896 production) and it was intended to be “traditional” and it is! Joseph Calleja and Anna Netrebko headline with Dan Ettinger conducting.
August 30th. Rossini Guillaume Tell. This is another new production , this time by Damiano Michieletto. Gerry Finley sings the title role with Malin Byström as Mathilde. Antonio Pappano conducts.
So, some decent fillers for the traditionally quiet summer season.
I guess it’s a good thing when one’s emotional and intellectual reactions to a program threaten to overwhelm one’s ability to listen analytically and evaluate. That’s what art is for isn’t it? Anyway that’s pretty much what happened to me today listening to a program called Songs of Love and War in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. The songs were all pieces more or less inspired by the catastrophes of the first half of the twentieth century; the wars, the rise of Nazi power, the occupation of France. These are all events that have many layers of meaning for me. I have studied them and the music and literature they generated for decades. I have known, often well, people who played roles in these events. I have deeply held views. You have been warned!
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.
I don’t really know whether the collaborations between Brecht and Weill deserve to be called operas but some of them at least are sung by opera singers and produced in opera houses so I think they are legitimately within the ambit of this blog. Arguably the best known of them all is Die Dreigroschenoper which premiered in Berlin in 1931. I’ve seen it a couple of times in English translation and, like most people I guess, I’m familiar with the music (in both English and German) through recordings by people like Lotte Lenya, Ute Lemper and Robyn Archer. With that background I was very interested to take a look at the 1931 film of the work directed by GW Pabst. Continue reading →
Brecht and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is an awkward work for an opera company. It’s been said, rightly I think, that one can/must situate it in a triangle of which the vertices are opera, musical theatre and Brechtian theatre. John Doyle’s 2007 production for Los Angeles Opera is strong on the opera and musical theatre dimensions but decidedly unBrechtian. Despite a good idiomatic translation by Michael Feingold this production seems unwilling to skewer capitalism in the manner Brecht intended. It’s the polar opposite of the Salzburg recording that left no Marxist cliche unexplored. Maybe it’s a failure of nerve. Maybe capitalism in LA is already such a parody of itself that further skewering is impossible. Who knows? Even Act 2, which is all about the commoditization of basic human pleasures doesn’t really fire. Sure we get excess and commoditized sex but there’s no sense that the commoditization is dehumanising or transgressive. Sex for sale? Of course! It does get a bit darker in the final act with the trial and execution of Jimmy and finishes strongly on “Still we only built this Mahagonny” but by then it’s very much too little, too late. The lack of edge is reinforced by the orchestra under James Conlon. It’s all just too civilized. There’s none of the spiky dissonance one is used to in the score and the brass, in particular, sound like they are playing in the Palm Court of the Hilton.
It’s a shame because the singing performances are mostly very good. The leading female roles are played by Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald who both have Broadway backgrounds. LuPone sounds like that’s where she’s from too though McDonald manages a much wider range and pretty much steals the show. It helps that she is very good looking and practically naked. The guys are mostly from opera backgrounds; notably Anthony Dean Griffey as Jimmy McIntyre and Donnie Ray Albert as Trinity Moses. Both sing well and idiomatically. The sets are sort of Vegas lite with none of the inexplicable weirdness of the Salzburg production but not much interest either. Again things look up a bit in the last act with effective use of a giant video screen in the trial scene and moving slogans over the finale. Blocking is very Broadway, especially the big chorus numbers that look more Rodgers and Hammerstein than Brecht and Weill.
Video direction is by Gary Halvorson and it’s judicious. There’s often not much set to look at so we might as well have close ups of Ms. McDonald. The technical package is solid. The picture is high quality 16:9. The sound choices are PCM stereo, DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1. The last is nicely balanced and clear There are French, German and Spanish subtitles. There’s a useful essay in the booklet which gives full track listings and a 20 minute interview with the director.