Operas with morals


Tom Sutcliffe reviews Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and Sweeney Todd


When the Royal Opera presented Brecht’s and Weill’s opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny a few weeks back, they seemed to be bidding to take over the role of English National Opera. A seatprice range from £5 to £85 undercut ENO as is (struggling to avoid termination), plus of course this was not ‘world class’ opera – that detestable PR phrase. Self-respecting Covent Garden patrons could have concluded it was too cheap to enjoy, and not real opera anyway. Many people feel Mahagonny is unfunny loaded ‘leftyism’. The Australian Barrie Kosky’s spectacular epic staging in Essen a few years back made the gluttony competition truly disgusting and local businessmen did not like it.

But Covent Garden, our premier opera institution, had a different motive – to show how broad an audience it can cater for. Meanwhile, at the Coliseum the other end of Floral Street, ENO opened a run of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in a version borrowed from the Lincoln Center New York that had been adorned with top international opera star Bryn Terfel in the title role and top film star and script-writer Emma Thompson as Mrs Lovett (whose pies disposed of the bodies). This had nought to do with ENO’s job, the reason it is subsidized, except being at the Coliseum using ENO’s orchestra. Does London need more musicals? Should ENO tackle musicals in a city where they are unavoidable?


Fantasy laced with irony

ENO last staged Mahagonny 20 years ago, in a production by Declan Donnellan, founder of the theatre company Cheek by Jowl, who directed the opera very successfully at the Wexford Festival in 1985. A Brechtian opera with a message is not so simple to do. The politics is important but so is the context, the humour, the sympathy. Revolutions have started in opera houses. But opera is not a philosophy lecture. Brecht’s characters must not be cardboard. The audience has to enjoy meeting them. Weill’s music gives oxygen to the tale. An inspired, well-targeted staging can make the people and the story come tellingly alive. Opera is not all about naturalism. Mahagonny is a parable, a fantasy, laced with irony. Yet it must in its way ring true to be touching, meaningful and idealistic. After escaping from Germany in March 1933, a year after Mahagonny became a hit in Berlin that ran for 50 consecutive performances, remodelled slightly for actors who were not such good singers and with a moving orchestral interlude after Jimmy’s execution, Weill and Brecht in Paris created their Seven Deadly Sins. Moral theatre is not boring. Think of Molière’s Tartuffe. It adds up.


Softening the satire

Covent Garden got the highly skilled and entertaining Jeremy Sams to make a new translation. But the result altered the feel and softened the satire. The show had video designs, the current fad, starting out like a road movie. Es Devlin’s sets were conceptual, building a mountain of piled-up containers. Expressionism and the Twenties and Thirties were old hat. This was Mahagonny today. Maestro Mark Wigglesworth, ENO’s new music director from this autumn, was too arty, too slow, too fiddly. The cast – Peter Hoare as Fatty, Christine Rice as Jenny, Willard W. White as Trinity Moses – looked promising. But Anne Sofie von Otter was quite wrong for Widow Begbick, while Kurt Streit as Jimmy, the doomed hero, failed to garner sympathy. John Fulljames directed a worthy staging that treated the show very respectfully (after all the Kurt Weill Foundation put up money to help) but no passion burned.

Sweeney Todd is said to be operatic, but it isn’t in that Sweeney cannot unbutton his feelings in a way that reliably and definitively transcends sentimentality. Its musical language is the language of musical theatre. Sondheim at one point suggested it could be considered ‘black operetta’. Certainly it is bleak. But it lacks the musical sophistication of operetta. And Sondheim’s dramatic and musical feeling for justice is not informed by the proportion that music requires to get really serious. Other Sondheim musicals have some fine songs and some good ideas to sing about. But Sweeney is his one work with both confident shape and coherence. And it is because it is a musical that does more than most musicals can do that it has earned its special place.


Crafty lyricist games

A heroic avenger at the heart of a musical needs to be able to include the right comic energy, even though revenge is no laughing matter. Sondheim’s musicals are praised for being intelligent – which is of course the mot juste for works that, like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s, have conceptual storylines. Sondheim’s mixture of skills perfectly fits the bitterness that is so essential a part of the challenge of the ‘demon barber’ tale. If Sondheim were a more serious or pretentious composer, he would have to have carried Sweeney Todd to a different, even more challenging level. But his crafty lyricist games suit his purpose here ideally – and the cast list equally provides a highly practical perspective for his theatrical purpose, to portray rough justice. This is not tragedy but irony – a kind of divine affection for appropriate outcome, as embodied though Mrs Lovett. Beastly comic and bizarre.

Of course ENO should have been staging the work on its own terms – as it once staged Sondheim’s challenging and rare Pacific Overtures. But ENO has got a long way off track.