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Anniversary Mahagonny at the Komische Oper

Komische Opera Berlin
09/27/2006 -  and 1, 6, 8, 10, 29 October, 4, 6 November, 18 and 29 December 2006
Kurt Weill: Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny
Christiane Oertel (Leokadja Begbick), Christoph Späth (Fatty), Jens Larsen (Dreieinigkeitsmoses), Tatjana Gazdik (Jenny), Kor-Jan Dusseljee (Jim Mahoney), Thomas Ebenstein (Jakob Schmidt), Martin Winkler (Bill), Frank Schneiders (Joe), Peter Renz (Tobby Higgins), Katja Zinsmeister (Speaker)
Andreas Homoki (Director), Hartmut Meyer (Set Designer), Mechtild Seipel (Costume Designer), Franck Evin (Lighting)
Kirill Petrenko (Conductor), Robert Heimann (Chorus Director)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Komische Opera Berlin

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Bertolt Brecht and, among many productions of his work in Berlin, the Komische Oper opened its season on September 24 with a new production of Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. Posters and program headlined a quote by Brecht: "Mahagonny is ein Spaß" (Mahagonny is a joke), and this production contains many pranks. At the centre of the otherwise bare stage (the stage is bare a lot at the Komische Oper) is a huge cube covered with brown paper on which chorus members paint key words as the action progresses (e.g., "taifun" - typhoon). In addition, many of Brecht's stage directions are projected onto the cube, but only a random selection of these directions is actually observed by the players. In one scene, for example, the men of Mahagonny are described as smoking, drinking and singing - but we see no smoking or drinking. At Jim's death the direction specifies "lights out", but the lights stay on - and Jim continues to walk among the Mahagonnians.

Spoken dialogue is also projected on to the cube - and sometimes the wrong character reads the projected lines.

During the typhoon, the great cube moves stage front, almost shoving the performers into the pit. But afterwards, when the citizens accept as their motto "Du darfst alles" (all is permitted), the dreary brown paper is torn away, revealing a garish plastic Ginza/Vegas/Riviera milieu. Blizzards of cash descend from the fly tower.

Among the singers, Christiane Oertel as Begbick is strongest. Her spoken lines are particularly forceful - she could give lessons. The work is a parable and the figures in it represent ideas or attitudes, leaving little scope for character development. However, Kor-Jan Dusseljee stands out in projecting a real person, and he also reveals a strong, ringing voice. Tatjana Gazdik as Jenny looks and acts the part, but her airy voice lacks the required weight and presence. Christoph Späth, a not-very-fat Fatty, has a cavernous voice. Oher singers were suitable for their roles.

Kirill Petrenko leads an appropriately punchy reading of the score, although this doesn't prevent it from becoming somewhat relentless by the third act. Brecht and Weill go over much the same cynical material with welcome brevity in their Seven Deadly Sins (1933), just three years after Mahagonny.

The printed program continues the joking attitude in the company's plea for contributions. Compressed translation: "Brecht is right. Without money nothing works in Mahagonny. Without money nothing gets on the stage. Contribute to the Friends of the Komische Oper." (These same friends are credited with supporting this new production). Perhaps the biggest joke today - in the opera world or anywhere - is anyone making a great effort to denounce money.

Michael Johnson



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