Kurt Weill & Bertolt Brecht: Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

Giselle Allen, Susan Bickley, Hannah Gordon et al; Royal Scottish National Orchestra/H K Gruber

Usher Hall, Edinburgh International Festival sponsored by Heineken NV and Scottish & Newcastle Breweries, 11 August 20084 stars

HK GruberBecause the Edinburgh Festival has its resemblances to the transient city created by Brecht and Weill, Mahagonny would be a ripe and mordant programme choice in any year, as bien pensants throng to Edinburgh seeking their hearts' desire.

Just now, a temporary facade clads the ongoing refurbishment of the Usher Hall, making a theatrical turn out of the business of getting in.

This year, though, with the swirl of financial crisis never far from the news, it is particularly piquant to reflect on this rare theatrical masterpiece from the climax of the Roaring 'Twenties. What resonances will Brecht's politically-charged message find with its well-heeled audience? We've become painfully familiar with the notion of sliced and diced desire, ruthlessly oversold, but do we buy Mahagonny's analysis? Do we leave the theatre deep in thought, or bathed in a glow of culinary satisfaction?

A bunch of rogues decide that getting people to part with gold is much easier than going to dig it up, so they found the sinful city of Mahagonny. For every hapless punter and mark drawn by the city's seductions there's a denizen ready to take advantage. Chief denizen is Leokadja Begbick (forerunner of another Brecht 'villain', Mother Courage), sung by Susan Bickley; the prostitute Jenny Hill (Giselle Allen) is a long way down the food chain, though not as far as her admirer, the lumberjack Jim Mahoney (Anthony Dean Griffey). Jim gets into trouble with the law, Jenny refuses to pay his fine, Jim is condemned, and so it goes on.
So, onstage for this concert performance we find orchestra, chorus and soloists dressed in formal splendour, ready to deliver a polished performance of a sumptuous score under the genial but committed direction of HK Gruber — it was easy to tell that he was enjoying himself enormously! Very Verfremdung. Personally I'm easily befuddled by texts that proclaim a 'message': did I get the right one? Is this a theatre or a church? Here the juxtaposition of squalor and pageantry seemed to be making a point at its own expense, the latter easily trumping the former.

Hannah GordonPerhaps that's just an artefact of the concert setting, but I think it goes deeper. Apparently this was Brecht's and Weill's last willing collaboration—'culinary' was Brecht's disparaging judgment, meaning a work of mere temporary refreshment, not a transformative vehicle of change. He's right, but Weill's score is radical in subtle ways. The instrumentation, for instance, effectively reconfigures the wind sections as a jazz big band (spare a thought for the poor, drowned oboe), while the introduction of guitars, banjos and accordions is reminiscent of the things a film composer like Ennio Morricone does (though Morricone has the benefit of the studio to get the ensemble well balanced). Some of the edge is taken off the score by rendering it in English. The metrical force of the original German, in the songs, gets dissipated, but there seems little point in doing the spoken parts in German, so what do you do? (Some would say that it is an offence against nature to ask singers to speak in the first place.) That aside, there's plenty of glorious music, and, despite the presumption of 'message', plenty of fun.

Backed by a Festival Chorus in splendid voice and marshalled by Hannah Gordon's stern narrator, there were nice cameos by Peter Hoare as Jack and Brindley Sherratt as Joe. The score naturally draws attention to Giselle Allen's sweetly cynical Jenny and Susan Bickley's salty, seen-it-all-before Begbick. At the centre of things, like a latter-day Job, powerless to resist his fate, Anthony Dean Griffey created a real sense of empathy for the trials and miseries of Jim. Although orchestra and conductor seemed still to be making each other's acquaintance early on, the RSNO is a much improved band in recent years and they quickly hit their stride, particularly the boisterous brass and percussion. By the end they were blazing!

By Peter Cudmore

Edinburgh International Festival 2008 opening concert sponsored by Heineken NV and Scottish & Newcastle Breweries

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Previous reviews of the Edinburgh International Festival :

Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Ades (2007)
San Francisco Symphony/Tilson Thomas (2007)
Optical Identity (T'ang Quartet) (2007)
A Celebration of Poulenc (2007)