Think of the notoriously sinful cities Sodom and Gomorrah referenced in the bible that were destroyed by sulphur and fire because of their wickedness. That is the starting point for the satirical opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
Premiering in Germany in March 1930, with text by Bertolt Brecht, Elizabeth Hauptmann and Kurt Weill and music by the latter, the work has been translated into English by Jeremy Sams. It is a story of greed, corruption, excess, murder and folly. It speaks of bombast and parallels with Trump’s presidency and the COVID-19 lockdowns here are made in iOpera and Melbourne Opera’s staging.
The story kicks off with a truck breakdown. Three fugitives decide to stay where they are because they determine authorities won’t pursue them as far north as they are. Instead, they start a pleasure city and attract interest from the big cities and gold fields. Prostitutes follow, as do four lumberjacks from Alaska who have shared hard times together. One of them – Jimmy McIntyre – gets to know the call girl Jenny Hill.
Meanwhile, Mahagonny is experiencing a financial crisis and a natural disaster beckons. While it may dodge that latter bullet, Jimmy’s mates are starting to fall like nine pins, through gluttony and pugilism. Penniless, Jimmy’s die – too – has been cast, while the city has become a bedrock of discontent and division, characterised by increasing hostility among factions.
I greatly appreciated the look and feel of the production. The humour, byplay and staging were the highlights for me. I warmed to some songs and not others (I can’t say it is the most melodic opera I have heard). Throughout I had trouble understanding what they were singing. Quite frankly, even though it was in English, it could have done with surtitles. Further, on occasion the music overwhelmed the words.
What was clear was the spoken narrative and the cartoon and visual elements projected onto the screen behind the artistes. They helped drive the story. Otherwise, without reading the synopsis in what is an excellent program, I would have been lost.
Liane Keegan as the crook who decides to start sin city, James Egglestone as Jimmy McIntyre and Antoinette Halloran as the lady of the night who attracts his interest savour their opportunities to shine. They ensure their characters have a big stage presence, to the benefit of the production. Plaudits also to the 40-piece orchestra, conducted by Peter Tregear.
I am pleased iOpera and Melbourne Opera has fun with The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny because that translated into audience enjoyment, although in my case not total satisfaction. The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is playing at the Athenaeum Theatre on Tuesday, 3rd May and Thursday, 5th May at 7:30pm.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Aida (Opera Australia) – opera review
- Tosca (Opera Qld) – theatre review
- Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti (Emotionworks Cut Opera) – theatre review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.