It’s not often that opera causes a riot. But when The Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny was first staged in 1930, Nazis in the audience decried its decadent message and violence soon followed outside. Like Bill Haley And The Comet’s Rock Around The Clock a generation later, Mahagonny’s imaginary world of imagined freedom presented a marked contrast to the austere mood of the times and the public reaction was explosive.
Mahagonny’s creators — firebrand cynic Bertolt Brecht and the godfather of cabaret Kurt Weill — mulled over this production for a number of years. The final result is as relevant now as it was then, focussing as it does on the pursuit of pleasure at all costs and the cynical and uxorious mindset of those providing that pleasure.
On the run from the police, Leocadia Begbick (Anne Sofie Von Otter) and her two co-conspirators decide to hide out and build a city dedicated to stripping money from all manner of hedonistic types. Were Brecht and Weill predicting the rise of Las Vegas? Perhaps. Before gambling was even legal in the state of Nevada, this opera portrays a desert city in America which is not short of ways for one to literally eat, fuck, box or booze oneself into oblivion.
The narrative centres on Jimmy (Kurt Streit), an Alaskan lumberjack. He and his three chums arrive in Mahagonny with seven years’ worth of savings and a belly full of carnal desires. Jimmy soon hooks up with a working girl from Arkansas, Jenny (Christine Rice); the latter makes her entrance with the stone-cold classic The Alabama Song, which has been covered by, among others, David Bowie and The Doors. Through the pair, we see the best and worst of this poisoned paradise where “everything is permitted” and money trumps morals. In its dystopian portrayal of privatised pleasure supervised by murderous criminals, this opera isn’t a million miles away from its piss-poor descendant Urinetown.
The Royal Opera House’s staging is magnificent. Es Devlin bases her set design around simple shipping crates but through bold lighting, video and projected labelling creates new layers to the story. Jeremy Sams’ brand new English translation loses a little along the way but we were glad to see the more effusive Anglo-Saxon terms left in despite the gilded environment. The direction of John Fulljames is exquisite and provides the right balance between knowing satirical pokes and an engaging plot. He keeps the pace up despite the dated elements of the libretto: the entire section about the hurricane could have been cut or severely abbreviated in this three-hour production and the tiresome lyrical repetitions do little to sustain the attention when they crop up.
Among the cast, Rice stands out for all the right reasons. Through vocal brilliance and visual bravado, she brings to vivid life the red-headed round-heel Jenny whose heart and mind are torn by Jimmy’s final predicament. Von Otter has a beautiful voice and, as the evil widow Begbick, joyously attacks her lines with bitingly vicious phrasing but her role is one-dimensional and cartoonish. Streit does his best to bring sympathy to the long-haired lover from Alaska who willingly dives head first into this amoral morass and, by and by, Streit succeeds.
Mahagonny is a sheer delight for the eyes and ears. Tickets are expensive but, in the spirit of this production, it is worth raiding the piggy bank and going all out for this brazen thrill.
The Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny runs at the Royal Opera House until 4 April. Tickets are £7 – £85.