Reviewing Threepenny Opera is about deciding where to raise the curtain. For a lot of people this work, written in 1928 by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, is as familiar an opera as exists. To many others, it rings no bells, except, perhaps, via the song “Mack the Knife.” I’ll compromise and start in the middle.
Brecht (words, libretto) and Weill (music) actually created a form of musical theatre which is neither quite opera, as in Wagner or Verdi, nor musical theatre as in Oklahoma and My Fair Lady. So, while the actual music and the size of the orchestra remain pretty constant from production to production, approaches to vocal performance of the music can be shaded toward one genre or the other. In this version, produced by Boston Lyric Opera, the singing is squarely in the opera camp.
Threepenny is based on The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay in 1728 and originally set by Brecht and Weill in Victorian England. This is often how it’s staged, but as the music can be shaded, so can the setting. Here, the traditional approach is alluded to but not strictly enforced. The first thing we see is an interesting scrim, separating the audience from the action, painted in a blood-brown color, with abstract shapes that evoke the cave paintings in Lascaux. When the scrim rises, we see the high vertical acting space, which evokes the feeling of an airy, spacious cage. Spare, geometrical wooden structures, where much of the action happens, slide in and out of the walls.
The costume designer says he wants to evoke a “dream space of sorts-an environment that feels oddly familiar, but also completely unrecognizable.“ I felt that the costumes were somewhat different than other Threepenny productions, but certainly within a recognizable range. The designer also said he wanted them to look as though they’d been worn to the point of being threadbare, but they seemed in better condition than that.
There are a number of characters with a substantial amount of singing (almost wrote ‘sinning’) to do: The Streetsinger, Peachum, Mrs. Peachum, their daughter Polly, Tiger Brown, Jenny Diver, Lucy Brown and Macheath (Mac the Knife). All sang well, although Tiger Brown (Daniel Belcher) and Macheath (Christopher Burchett) delivered the strongest performances. I think this did not necessarily result from the quality of their voices. Especially in the first part of the performance, a high proportion of the singing was delivered mid or up-stage, which I think was a mistake. The strongest moments were delivered downstage, closer to the audience and stronger still, when certain voices were paired, especially those of Macheath and Brown.
The word “opera” in the title of this piece carries a certain amount of intrinsic irony. Brecht was all about the audience maintaining distance from the performance and not buying into the suspension of disbelief that opera thrives on. Weill’s melodies are often sweeping and grand, but his orchestration is a hybrid of different kinds of music-cabaret, jazz and tango. In practice, this challenges the singer’s articulation, inflection and strength and evenness in moving through different vocal registers. I believe that the music is best performed by singers who can move comfortably through these different genres. In this performance, some of the performers were powerful in certain ranges of their voice and not impactful or easily understood in other ranges.
Another related consideration is whether or not to use amplification-which they didn’t. Opera singers are trained and accustomed to projecting without microphones, while musical theatre made the transition to amplification a long time ago. As I said, this music was not really meant for singers of opera or lieder and I think that some sound reinforcement would have evened out the vocals and made the lyrics, or libretto, more easily understood.
The staging had moments of great imagination, especially the duet with Macheath and Polly through the curtain and the final scene with Macheath on the gallows. I find the last scene often drags, as it’s a simple enough gag that goes on pretty long and must be a challenge to stage. The various tableaus, moving and still, helped to sustain interest. I also thought having Macheath not be triumphant after his reprieve from the gallows was a wise directorial choice. In terms of the staging of other scenes, I had the problem I mentioned before about too much happening upstage. I also considered problematic a scene with the beggars writhing n the stage and another scene with beggars caressing and stroking Mrs. Peachum for reasons I could not grasp.
There were a number moments where the lighting and staging came together to great effect: when money rained from high above in a pink light, when a group of singers was downstage and bathed in limelight and when speakers or singers were singled out for intense spotlights thrown from long distances.
Overall, the tech was very solid. Some acting and directorial choices worked for me while some did not pay off for me, like Mrs. Peachum breaking the fourth wall, or the pie scene. As noted, I found some vocal performances spotty and some excellent. If The Threepenny Opera is new to you, this production will help you understand the work’s longevity and continuing relevance. If you’re a veteran, with more performances under your belt, it may not make it to the top of your list, but you will still want to make it to the show. Any professional rendering of the show, such as this one, has its fascinations.
THE THREEPENNY OPERA. THROUGH 3.25 AT BOSTON LYRIC OPERA AT HUNTINGTON AVENUE THEATRE, 264 HUNTINGTON AVE., BOSTON. WWW.BLO.ORG