Dallas — With the holiday season now in full swing, Opera in Concert’s presentation of “A Night in Berlin” at the Sammons Center for the Arts on Friday came across with a special bit of poignancy. Founder Edward Crafts’ program featured two mid-20th century operettas written by German composers, loosely connected by a similar theme of materialism and its role in the depredation of the societal and personal relationships.
Whether or not Crafts sought to present the program to serve as a social commentary on the aggressive commercialization of the Christmas season is, of course, debatable, but that is certainly what this reviewer walked away pondering.
The show opened to a tightly packed house with four men clad in a sort of urban-grunge attire. On a modestly appointed stage, set with beaten up chairs, benches, crates, and tables interpretively conveying a scruffy back-alley, they begin the first of six movements that make up Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Mahagonny Songspiel, which first premiered in 1927. Later joined by two women, the cast gave a solidly fine performance, though the “opera” in this “concert” may be loosely defined. The voices were individualistic and, for the most part, a bit rough around the edges. However, when working together in close-nit harmonies, the troupe sounded well-balanced and thoughtfully in-tune.
Crafts’ English translation of the German scenic cantata brings immediacy to its core themes, along with a curious bit of melodrama. There was no actual plot, nor any fully realized characters. Instead, the work ambled from song to song, each separated by musical interludes that range from a march to vivace assai to fill roughly 35 minutes. Weill’s musical setting of Brecht’s poetry makes for very challenging experiences, with a sharp insistence on scathing self-reflection that, when properly applied, can give new meaning to the highly commercialized, capitalistic nature of the American identity.
Together, the movements depict a fictional American city, Mahagonny, which is wrought with greed and depravity, as it faces the surety of impending destruction. If one looks closely enough, it is easy to see how Brecht and Weill’s perspective of the contemporary American West was like a modern Sodom and Gomorrah, brought down by the people’s excessive greed, hedonistic indulgences, and moral corruption. In its time, Mahagonny Songspiel was also a call to resistance, serving as a forewarning to German society’s steady descent into Nazism and the rise of Adolf Hitler.
Following the intermission, Crafts joined the four-person cast in their rendition of Boris Blacher’s Die Flut, or as in Crafts’ English translation of the work, The Tide. It tells the story of a four people who come face to face with their own mortality when they get caught out in a rising tide while exploring the wreckage of an old ship. The cast includes a young woman, her older, although very wealthy, beau—the banker, a young man, who comes to dote on the young woman, and a good-natured fisherman, who guides the group to the shipwreck and later finds himself also in love with the young woman.
This half of the program was worth the venture out to the Sammons Center for Opera in Concert. Joshua Hughes, whose neat and bodied baritone portrayed the tender-hearted Fisherman, was delightful in character and interpretation. His counter, soprano Gabrielle Gilliam, was gleaming and bright as the Young Woman, with lovely lines and a convincing level of drama. It was a treat to see Crafts perform with the company. His bass-baritone lent depth and a necessary sophistication to the Banker that balanced the younger, tinnier, timbres on the stage. Steven Brennfleck, tenor, was dominant and engaging as the Young Man. His bold and lilting tone made him a vocal stand out in this production, but not as to separate himself from the overall texture. Crafts’ stage direction effectively utilizes ladders and a two-by-four to depict the masts and rotting beams of the drowning wreckage, further convincing the audience of the plot and its central message.
The Tide asks viewers to be wary of the influence of money and materialism as the plot quickly exposes the fickle fragility of personal relationships when challenged by greed and coveting. Through violent and heart-breaking means, Blacher’s work challenges viewers to think critically of how money and things shape our goals and influence our desires, and conversely, how a simpler-natured, ungreedy approach toward life so often goes unrewarded.
It was an interesting night of music and drama at Opera in Concert’s “A Night in Berlin.” As vague of a word as “interesting” is, it is the most applicable description as the program and its execution did very well to pique my interest in this company. It answered no questions and posed no new or shocking perspectives; however, these two works together did offer a faint suggestion for navigating this holiday season: while material things are great, perhaps this time of year is also a good time to stop, as a society, and take stock in the current Zeitgeist so as to ensure our collective path forward still gives ultimate value to concepts like love, community, charity.