Alemania

The Whole of the Law

Jesse Simon
viernes, 22 de octubre de 2021
Kosky, Aufstieg und Fall ... © 2021 by Iko Freese Kosky, Aufstieg und Fall ... © 2021 by Iko Freese
Berlin, sábado, 2 de octubre de 2021. Komische Oper Berlin. Weill: Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. Barrie Kosky, director. Nadine Weissmann (Begbick), Ivan Turšic (Fatty), Jens Larsen (Trinity Moses), Nadja Mchantaf (Jenny), Allan Clayton (Jimmy), Philipp Kapeller (Jack O’Brien), Tom Erik Lie (Bank Account Billy), Tijl Faveyts (Alaskawolfjoe), and Adrian Kramer (Toby Higgins). Chorus and Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin. Ainārs Rubiķis, conductor
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Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht were both residents of Berlin in the late 1920s when they started work on the modest cantata that would -with much revision and expansion- eventually become Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, and it is certainly possible that their own city served as a source of inspiration for the frontier town of unbridled vice that forms the setting of the opera. Nearly a century later, as Berlin strides towards what is certain to be an intolerable half-decade of post-pandemic excess, Mahagonny would seem an ideal cautionary tale to throw in its path. While Barrie Kosky’s tremendously bleak new production -which opened the Komische Oper’s new season- held nothing back in its depiction of licentiousness, it ended up being less a critique of a declining society than a dark parable on the dangers of attempting to assert one’s individuality within it.

Mahagonny belongs to a long tradition of satirical works that derive their essential force from a complete lack of subtlety; Brecht’s libretto underlines the amorality of the scenario with such relentless vigour that not even someone who had dozed off in the middle could fail to get the point. Yet its refusal to be bound by specifics allows considerable scope for the target of its satire: although it is set in a fictional city in the United States, somewhere between Alabama and Alaska (somewhere close to the gold rush yet also prone to hurricanes, which is to say nowhere in this geographical reality), the vices of Mahagonny belong neither to a specific city nor country, but to every part of the world.

Weill: Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. Ainārs Rubiķis, conductor. Barrie Kosky, director. Komische Oper Berlin, October 2021. © 2021 by Iko Freese.Weill: Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. Ainārs Rubiķis, conductor. Barrie Kosky, director. Komische Oper Berlin, October 2021. © 2021 by Iko Freese.

Mr Kosky’s staging used this fundamental placelessness as a starting point, setting the action within a narrow triangle of stage delimited by two angled walls that were revealed to be giant mirrors in the course of the first act. The set was unfurnished save for a few water-coolers and full length mirrors wheeled onto the stage at various points, and the costumes -at least in the first act- were casual enough to prevent the staging from settling into a recognisable time or place. The action unfolded within the hermetic world of the bare stage, but in the course of the evening this small wedge of emptiness seemed to grow ever more gigantic. 

With little else on stage, the story was depicted largely through the movements and arrangements of the assembled cast. Although some scenes were rendered with an almost uncomfortable fidelity to the events described in the libretto -the opening sequences of the second act were especially barbarous- the arc of the story was treated casually, more as a point of departure than a fixed series of plot points, and the staging was often less interested in illustrating the various scenes than in giving visual form to their underlying emotional character. If parts of the evening seemed conspicuously theatrical, as though the action on stage had been assembled from a series of arduous improvisations, its most arresting moments had a raw immediacy.

Weill: Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. Ainārs Rubiķis, conductor. Barrie Kosky, director. Komische Oper Berlin, October 2021. © 2021 by Iko Freese.Weill: Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. Ainārs Rubiķis, conductor. Barrie Kosky, director. Komische Oper Berlin, October 2021. © 2021 by Iko Freese.

Much of the drama in Mr Kosky’s conception arose from the gradual alienation of Jimmy from the corrupt world of Mahagonny; as the only character able to recognise the limitations of true freedom he is both driven to the brink of insanity by the lack of social responsibility around him (it was here that the parallels with Berlin seemed most obvious) and unable to embrace carelessness with the same abandon as his fellow citizens. The divide between Jimmy and the city was rendered not only with costumes -he alone retained his street clothes when the rest of the characters reappeared in sparkly suits and gowns in the second act- but also through pure movement, in a series of wonderfully staged sequences that established an increasingly antagonistic relationship between him and the townspeople.

Although Mr Kosky’s staging was undoubtedly brilliant, it also managed to be somewhat unpleasant. Paradoxically, some of the most patience-testing scenes were among the best: the protracted execution of Jimmy, which aroused the vocal ire of some audience members, somehow transformed its rigorous monotony into brute force. And the final scene was a master-class in knowing when to let the music do the heavy-lifting: with no stage action -apart from a subtle repositioning of the mirrored walls to create the impression of the spider’s web from which Mahagonny apparently takes its name- the morbidly comic lyrics of the finale took on an overwhelming immensity. One nonetheless emerged from the auditorium slightly battered, and with a bad taste in the mouth; which, one suspects, was Mr Kosky’s goal.

If parts of the staging leaned in the direction of excess, much of the music was notable for its restraint. Although Weill’s orchestration calls for banjo, bandoneon and saxophones alongside more traditional forces, the unusual instruments were integrated so well into the performance that they emerged more as textural enhancements than intrusions of the dancehall into the rarefied world of opera. It was an approach that, on the one hand, showcased the fluidity of Weill’s witty, referential style, but also buffed away some of the grotesqueries of its popular music parodies. The hushed, expectant prelude to the hurricane emerged with ominous beauty, while the unsubtle brutality of the finale was all the more unexpected for having no real precedent in the evening.

Weill: Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. Ainārs Rubiķis, conductor. Barrie Kosky, director. Komische Oper Berlin, October 2021. © 2021 by Iko Freese.Weill: Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. Ainārs Rubiķis, conductor. Barrie Kosky, director. Komische Oper Berlin, October 2021. © 2021 by Iko Freese.

Much of the singing followed a similarly restrained approach. Although Nadine Weissmann brought a necessary edge of declamatory authority to Begbick, other characters received more straightforwardly operatic readings. As Jenny, Nadja Mchantaf gave a haunted performance of the Alabama Song, floating graceful high notes over the choir, and, when on her own or in smaller ensembles, was an enchanting vocal presence. Allan Clayton was also strong as Jimmy, adopting a tone of ardent longing for his scenes with Jenny, but conveying the onset of despair and madness with genuine force. Yet the evening’s most consistently impressive vocal performance belonged to the choir, who formed the stable centre of the busiest scenes, and were able to switch from ethereal to sardonic to menacing with remarkable agility.

For all its energy and invention, the Komische Oper’s new Mahagonny remained a difficult production to like. Brecht’s libretto is already on the darker end of the black-comedy spectrum, and in pursuing its satirical excesses, Mr Kosky pushed it beyond comedy to the point where it was merely grim and unsettling. Brecht and Weill must certainly have enjoyed themselves skewering the conventions and expectations of romantic opera, and it is their irreverent absurdity that makes the nihilistic undercurrents of Mahagonny more palatable; by reducing the story to its essence, the production brought us distressingly close to its uncomfortable truths.

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