If you’ve ever seen a production directed by Calixto Bieito, imagine what his take on Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny would look like. Congratulations! You are correct. If you haven’t seen any Bieito, imagine the Florida Man Twitter feed as rewritten by Michel Houellebecq. Take out all the gators, because local color isn’t on Bieito’s agenda. However, somebody’s face is perpetually in danger of being eaten.
Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. Opera Ballet Vlaanderen in Antwerp, 6/29/16. Production by Calixto Bieito (revival), sets by Rebecca Ringst, costumes by Ingo Krügler, lights by Franck Evin, dramaturgy by Xavier Zuber. Conducted by Dmitri Jurowski with Renée Morloc (Leokadja Begbick), Tineke Van Ingelgem (Jenny Hill), Ladislav Elgr (Jim Mahoney), full cast here
This happened at the Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, or Flemish Opera and Ballet, which performs in both Ghent and Antwerp but in this case I was in Antwerp. They are first past the post with a Brexit joke in this opera—a rather appropriate choice, too. Brecht and Weill’s only full opera is a parable of capitalism’s excesses, and Bieito’s extremely lurid, violent, and self-consciously trashy style is on full display. It’s just about as predictably over the top as can be. When he works in bigger and/or more conservative houses like the ENO or even the Bayerische Staatsoper, he reins things in considerably (don’t expect anything like this of the Carmen debuting at the Boston Lyric Opera in the fall). But the smaller Opera Vlaanderen has something of a reputation for cultivating Regie scandals. This one is rated 16+.
Rebecca Ringst’s set has two levels and is mostly occupied by a growing group of gaudy trailers. One has a garage door type opening that gives us a small stage, one that functions as a strip club (because of course there are strippers) and the boxing ring. Franck Evin’s lighting is brilliant, produces some startlingly varied and beautiful effects, transforming even this overwhelming space. The atmosphere is trashy from the start: outrageously tacky clothes, random outbursts of violence and non-sequiturs, and eventually bright neon signs proclaiming ALL YOU CAN [various things] and a huge pile of inflatable, very squeaky pool toys. Trinity Moses is a priest. There is always a lot going on onstage, to the extent that you feel that you are missing a lot of it.
This is Bieito’s thing, and in a certain way it works for this piece. The city of Mahagonny is the logical end point of capitalism’s worst, most unchecked instincts. What appears to be total indulgence doesn’t actually make anyone happy. Here we recognize this from our repulsion at the stage’s excess and ugliness. It’s not a very Brechtian way of making the point, I don’t think, because Bieito undeniably trades in titillation as well (though that’s been a claim against Weill and Brecht since the premiere of Threepenny Opera, before Mahagonny was even written). But it’s a fine line between critiquing excess and being excess and I wonder if Bieito would prefer to be both at once.
This production starts at 11 and gets to maybe 14. Rarely has Jim Mahoney’s complaint that Mahagonny is boring seemed more on point. When you start off with a murder by power drill and some humping of an inflatable killer whale, where do you go? Well, you make out with someone in a giant banana suit, and there’s a the Mandalay Song in a brothel in Act 2 and you can probably guess where that ends up, but by that point the sex and violence has become the background. It’s sensory overload Bieito, and that’s a genre he does better, or with a more unrelenting will, than almost anyone else. Here it is not clear, however, to what end.
I admire a lot of Bieito’s work, including some of the extreme stuff. But I think he’s most interesting when there’s more tension between his sensationalist instincts and the text he’s staging than he can get with harsh, angular Weill and Brecht. In Dialogues of the Carmelites, destruction and random violence worked against the spirituality of the music. In Armide, violent lust was set to elegant classicism. Or take Carmen, an opera where Bieito’s de-glamming takes out a lot of stale Spanish convention. Mahagonny already features the ruin of humanity and failure of society, there’s nothing for Bieito to do but a unidirectional ramping up.
Bieito doesn’t partake in most conventional Brechtian techniques, but he does start with a kind of alienation. A formal host (think Forrest Macneil from Review) begins by explaining that we are about to see Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny, holding up a score, and noting that the cast is entirely professional singers. I believe this to be a jab at the Weill estate, and also makes it sound like we’re going to be watching an old school documentary. This host wanders through the events like a live voiceover, announcing the scenes where we would otherwise have intertitles.
The host also introduces his pigtail-wearing, crayon-carrying daughter (above center in pink). As soon as I saw that I knew that really bad things were going to happen to this girl. This being the Bieito Mahagonny, I was right! She is eventually drawn into the story, lead into one of the trailers, and it is implied she is gang raped by a long line of men. She emerges unrecognizable, a platinum blonde in gold lamé. I’m not sure what we are meant to conclude from this. I don’t think this production’s sexual politics have been very well thought out.
The thing is that Bieito, and the brave souls who stage Bieito’s revivals (here Marcos Darbyshire), does best when dealing with intimate drama. And this is one way Mahagonny isn’t a very good fit for him. Too much of it is large ensemble—Brecht and Weill’s style is antithetical to big arias. He can fill the stage, but the things I tend to remember are the moments of one or two singers, who often give unbelievably intense performances. He also gravitates much more towards relationships—particularly, though this is going to sound weird, spiritual crisis—than he is in capitalism. Brecht and Weill obviously aren’t going to give him space for this catharsis. Bieito doesn’t seem interested in economics or class, either, and the economic debauchery is almost entirely displaced.
There are still standout moments, mostly thanks to the very hardworking and game cast. I wasn’t sure what level to expect, musically, but I was favorably impressed. Dmitri Jurowski conducted with style and a quick pace, and the onstage piano was appropriately out of tune. Ladislaus Elgr has the cutting, hefty tenor for Jim Mahoney, and convinced as both earnest newcomer and renegade. Renée Morloc as Begbick sang with great energy; she was more interesting in her Act 1 power suit incarnation than her Act 2 stereotypical floozy incarnation, but that’s not her fault. As Jenny, Tineke Van Ingelgem showed an excellent sense of Weill’s musical style, including both a real soprano and a belt-like lower register, though her diction wasn’t always quite there. Her “Meine Herren, meine Mutter prägte,” sung on top of one of the trailers, was a rare moment of quiet solo intensity, as was her Crane Duet with Elgr.
During intermission, I showed myself the way to the next (nearest) beer bar and oh, I knew why. It was great—this is, after all, Belgium. I went back in, and the performance ended with the chorus invading the auditorium and unfurling banners proclaiming that “WE ARE MAHAGONNY.” Because that wasn’t obvious enough already?
Oh, and that Brexit joke: when the Mahagonny economy crashes early on, Fatty (I think) paints “Ich liebe Wirtschaftkrise” (I love an economic crisis) on one side of the trailers. Here he added a Brexit for good measure. But there isn’t enough racism, I thought.
If you go: The Flemish Opera and Ballet is a smaller company than the Dutch National Opera and because of their penchant for Regie I would advise you do your homework before you go. Look up the production or director and see if it’s your thing. Normally I encourage everyone to give everything a try, but the Opera Vlaanderen is a bit of a special case here. This is also because the tickets are on the pricey side, presumably due to less state funding. I had a seat up in the third balcony, which isn’t far away but is high up and has very poor sight lines, and I would recommend getting something further down. It wasn’t, however, sold out. Surtitles are only in Flemish. (I watched the old-fashioned way and listened to the words—I speak German—but studying up might be necessary!)
Photos copyright Annemie Augustijns
Trailer (SO NSFW):