Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera has long been my favorite opera. By the time I was 12 I knew every word of every song in this darkly comic study of the cruelties of human nature revealed in the interlocking mechanisms of class and capitalism.
Mess with my memories of Threepenny and you mess with my primal love of theater.
Which is what happened last Saturday at the West Edge Opera’s production of Threepenny. When the lights went down in the cavernous Bridge Yard, a 24,000–square foot industrial building built in 1938, and the raucous, discordant music of the overture crashed across the pit to the audience, my heart thrilled. It was everything one could wish for. Conducted by David Möschler, the band was composed of seven musicians doubling and tripling on a startling mix of instruments. Eric Walton, for instance, played accordion, banjo, cello and acoustic guitar. The musicians attacked Weill’s brilliant music with a dazzlingly manic vigor and bumptious precision. Throughout, the music was splendid.
And then … the story began.
Threepenny tells the life of Macheath, a criminal kingpin in the underworld of 19th-century London. A covert figure both amoral and ruthless, Mack the Knife seduces and marries Polly, the only child of J. J. Peachum and wife. Peachum, who runs a beggars’ outfit shop, plans to retrieve his daughter and with it Macheath’s ill-gotten fortune by selling him out to the local police. That the Chief of Police, Tiger Brown, is Macheath’s old Army mate doesn’t offer Mackie much protection, finally. Betrayed by Jenny Diver, Mack’s former lover and prostitute, our anti-hero bitterly waits his hanging on the new Queen’s coronation day.
The play was based on Elisabeth Hauptmann’s translation John Gay’s 1782 play The Beggar’s Opera. Brecht took over Hauptmann’s translation and added four poems to the libretto, by the notorious and ne’er-do-well 15th-century poet François Villon, who likewise had been condemned to hang.
And so, while Saturday’s play had all the elements of the original, the devil was in the details. As the play continued, my disappointment grew.
Where was the Street Singer? The character who leads us through the acts, accompanied by a wheezing harmonimum and plot-revealing narrative? the character who sings the song that long ago crossed over into jazz and popular music, “The Ballad of Mack the Knife?”
Gone. Replaced rather arbitrarily by other members of the cast.
OK, I can accept that. But when Polly Peachum sings “Pirate Jenny” to her parents in Act 1, something in me rebelled. That, followed by Polly singing “The Barbara Song” after her marriage rather than at her marriage, threw me in to a lather of spluttering expletives.
At the intermission I talked with Musical Director Jonathan Khuner about the changes in the production. He told me that none of the songs were ascribed to specific characters in the Brecht/Weill score, so it’s unclear who sang what, and that this led to a number of performance variations over time.
That compelled me to search out the history of this play.
Brecht and Weill’s version was dashed out to meet its August 31, 1928 opening night in Berlin, which suggests that neither of them had the time or opportunity to determine an optimum score or libretto, or perhaps even write the singers’ names on the score.
In the listing of songs and scenes from the premier performance, however, Polly does indeed sing the dark fantasy “Pirate Jenny” at her wedding, though, I hope, less awkwardly than that of Saturday night, when Polly introduced the song by saying, “Imagine I’m another girl singing this song”…
By 1932 and the release of the German film version of Die Dreigroschenoper, directed by G. W. Pabst, Polly’s wedding song had been changed to “The Barbara Song”, a wistful and bitter meditation of the attractions of cruel love. And “Pirate Jenny” was sung in a haunting version by Lotte Lenya as Jenny Diver. I believe this is the correct order: who else but Jenny Diver would sing “Pirate Jenny”?
In Marc Blitzstein’s 1954 version “The Barbara Song” would move to Lucy Brown, giving Tiger Brown’s daughter and the third woman of note among Mackie’s harem of conquests a broader more complex character. All of these changes fill out the characters, making the female characters more than the stock ones that inhabit The Beggar’s Opera.
Blitzstein’s version was the first version to grab the American psyche with any real power. In 1952, Leonard Bernstein conducted a concert performance of the work with Blitzstein narrating. An Off-Broadway production premiered in 1954. Blitzstein’s language has been called “soft”, and it does lack the crudities and terseness of the language in Pabst’s film, but he does keep the social criticism clear: “What keeps a man alive?/ He lives on others;/ he likes to taste them/ first then eat them whole if he can./ Forgets that they’re supposed to be his brothers,/ that he himself was ever called a man.” It is also the version I learned as a child.
Which brings me to the real problem for me of this production: the libretto. With dialog translated by Robert MacDonald and song lyrics translated by Jeremy Jams, the words of this production trudged across the stage, stumbled over the musicians, and sank catatonic into the audience. The lyrics were wordy, polysyllabic and, worse, over-explained what didn’t need to be explained. The Scottish playwright MacDonald’s prose style has been described as “Shaw pulled through a hedge backwards and colliding with Ivy Compton-Burnett on the other side.” Nothing else need be said.
Despite the sludge-like pace of the script, there were brilliant moments. Cathryn Cook was divine as Mrs. Peachum in “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” And Maya Kherani (Polly) and Erin O’Meally (Lucy Brown) delivered a rollicking “Jealousy Duet.” Mr. Peachum (Jonathan Spencer) was lovely, despite his accent. (Accents were a problem throughout, as everyone’s wandered woefully over the map of “What Americans Think the English Talk Like”.) Sarah Coit provided a stately and strong-willed Jenny Diver, with an understated and ironic rendering of the “Solomon Song” – oddly the only song that retained Blitzstein’s clear and straightforward lyrics.
– Jaime Robles
The West Edge Opera’s production of The Threepenny Opera continues through August 15. For information and tickets, visit westedgeopera.org.