Amarillo — The Amarillo Opera presented an unusual opera for its last mainstage production of the season. In fact, some could argue that it is more a musical than an opera, even though the latter term is part of its name: The Threepenny Opera. Whatever you call it, it was an excellent production, beautifully sung and acted, that caught the spirit of the work.
The Threepenny Opera, which premiered in Berlin in 1928, is called “a play with music.” Based on an earlier ballad opera by John Gay called The Beggar’s Opera, it was conceived and written by Bertolt Brecht, with music by Kurt Weill. The English translation was prepared in the 1950’s by the composer Marc Blitzstein, who softened some of its Weimar Republic edges.
As usual with the Amarillo Opera, the singers are mostly drawn from the current and upcoming generation of opera singers and those chosen are the best of the bunch. These are singers with fine excellent acting abilities, who have begun to build a résumé of successful appearances with regional companies. The Threepenny Opera is often cast with just the opposite—actors with decent singing abilities or a combination thereof.
None of the characters we meet in the show are members of any semblance of a normal society: they are criminals, whores, thieves, murderers, and corrupt police. Yet, the world they inhabit is depicted as completely normal, since Brecht never shows us the world outside. Brecht, the dedicated Marxist, purposely creates this alternate negative print of a universe and takes glee in depicting it with such recognizable suburban ordinariness.
Mark Womack greatly impressed two years ago as Sharpless in the Amarillo Opera’s production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Macheath (Mack the Knife) is the opposite. He played him like any other business owner (this one just happens to be nefarious). He is all too aware that he is handsome and dashing and learned long ago how to maximize his natural gifts. He modulated and modified his voice throughout so that it better suited his characterization. Much of this music would have sounded comical dressed up in full operatic regalia. However, he let his magnificent baritone voice peek out occasionally. He was at his best in the big scene in the third act.
Maren Weinberger as Polly Peachum took a similar approach. Her chirpy sound in the first act gave way to reveal an impressive lyric soprano in the second act. She was also believable as the nice pretty girl next door who just happens to have no moral aversion whatsoever to a life of crime.
Claire Shackleton played Jenny, the other girl in Mack’s life, as Polly’s opposite. While nothing going on bothers her, per se, she understands where Polly is oblivious. She accepts her “work” in the brothel, as though she worked in a shop.
The Peachums run a nice business—they manage an army of beggars that spread out over all of London. For a large percentage, they help new beggars find their “personality” to use on the street; maybe blind, crippled or afflicted with seizures. Whatever works for their assigned street corner.
Jenni Bank commands the stage and chews up the scenery as the indomitable Mrs. Peachum, unleashing her immense mezzo voice as a weapon. She was equally awesome as the Old Lady in the Amarillo production of Candide last season. The excellent baritone, Robert Kerr, holds his own as Mr. J.J. Peachum, her husband. Both of these singers have huge opera roles on their résumés and bright futures. Here, they displayed equally effective acting abilities. Their enjoyment at getting to play these two wonderfully nefarious characters must have been delicious because it certainly came across to the audience.
The reason that Mack the Knife is able to work at his “job” so freely is that Chief of Police Tiger Brown is an old army buddy who cheerfully looks the other way for a token of appreciation. Chad Armstrong is excellent as happy-go-lucky Brown and, when Mack is finally in jail, blubbers all over himself that he wasn’t responsible. Amber Smoke did a fine job as his daughter, Lucy Brown, who is also in the cue of females hoping for Mack’s attentions.
Patrick Swindell, as the Street Singer, gets to start everything with the show’s hit song “Mack the Knife.” His voice is not as operatic as the others and his lounge-singer approach to the song reminds us of how ubiquitous it has become in such venues. Since this show can be cast with almost any kinds of voices, his delivery implied that this production would take a more Broadway or pop oriented approach. Such was not the case and his early appearance allowed the other much more operatic singers to be a surprise.
The scenery was designed by Dennis Hassan and originally built for Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theater. It was appropriately abstract yet realistic zero in the manner of German Expressionist Art. The action took place in an isolated center stage area while the city of Berlin loomed over the proceedings in a series of canted drawings. The muted costumes by Bonnie Brodeur were appropriate of the era.
The show is written for a small pit band made up of a few brass and reed players who double on lots of other instruments. There is also a pianist, who also plays on multiple instruments, and a drummer. The effect is what you would have heard in any Weimar nightclub of the era. Conductor Braden Toan did an excellent job as well, wisely eschewing the regular podium technique of an opera conductor.
The music is definitely non operatic, nor does it aspire to such lofty heights. This means that the singers/actors do not get big soaring arias or ensembles to discuss in a review. Some of the songs are more operatic than others, and thus sound better with such a voice in the role, but casting will always default to the acting side.
The incidental music that runs under the dialogue is the opposite of operatic splendor. It is more reminiscent of the stale-cigarette-smoke-down-n-out-watery-drink kind of place. This being Germany between the wars the music is tinged with jazz and has a distinctive overlay of Klezmer.
An opera review is usually, mostly, about the music and how all the other elements fit in. A review is rarely about the libretto. In fact, some opera plots are so ridiculous that they are mentioned with an accompanying eyeroll, if at all. Not so here.
As previously mentioned, The Threepenny Opera is officially called a “play with music.” The reason the words are separated, and that “play” comes first, is due to the theories of the Expressionist playwright Brecht. One of their overriding concerns was the injection of artifice into a work of art. A perfect visual art example is Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. A realistic deck dissolves into a riotous abstract sunset and the face of the screamer has lost all 3-D features.
One of the ways Brecht thought this should be done was by the sudden interjection of songs that reflected and commented rather than move the action forward. Many times, he felt these songs should break through the fourth wall and be addressed directly to the audience.
This is exactly what happens in The Threepenny Opera. The songs, with simple piano accompaniments, are spliced into the show. Further, they never have a real ending. Instead, they just stop.
Certainly, composer Kurt Weill was an equal partner, but the end result was not a merger, as in an opera. Threepenny Opera is a combination of the two elements with each related, but remaining discrete.
In this respect, this show is much like its predecessor, The Beggar’s Opera, which premiered in 1728. It was designed as a satire of Italian Grand Opera, which was all the rage at the time. Instead of royalty as the main characters, Gay depicted the dregs of society. As opposed to opera, the lines of the play were spoken rather than sung in endless recitatives. The “arias” were stuck in, interpolated, and were mostly stolen from opera popular at the time—the better known to the public the better.
Other updates followed Threepenny. There are versions by musicians as diverse as Duke Ellington and Benjamin Britten. However, it is The Threepenny Opera that remains in the repertoire from Broadway theaters to opera houses around the world—and in Amarillo.