Monday, August 6, 2012

They want to be good, but conditions won't allow it

That, dear readers, is a quote and the theme of Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), by Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht, which I saw performed August 4 at the University of North Texas.  The work is based on John Gay's The Beggar's Opera of 1728, which was a low-brow reaction to the Italian opera that was popular with the early 18th-century cognoscenti in London.  Mr. Gay's work dealt with prostitutes and thieves and beggars and corrupt policemen.  It was a huge hit, the Jersey Shore of its day, compared to the Masterpiece Theatre of italian Baroque opera seria.  Inspired by a revival or that work in 1920, Messrs Weill and Brecht created an adaptation that premiered in Weimar Republic-era Berlin, 1928.  The lower classes were not romanticized, as one might have seen in a Hollywood movie of the same era, but rather portrayed in very gritty detail.  UNT faculty member Stephen Dubberly called Threepenny Opera in his pre-performance talk the pinnacle of decadent expressionism.

Murchison Performing Arts Center
University of North Texas
The performance itself was led by Dr. Dubberly as Music Director and Elizabeth King as Stage Director, and inexplicably sung in German while the dialogue was in English.  In my humble opinion that doesn't work at the Met and it doesn't work at the university level either.  I also think there was much that seemed to have required more rehearsal, even though this was the last performance of the run.  Not enough of the dialogue was cut, and what was left was sometimes awkward.  The singer-actors whose first language is not English usually did an admirable job of dealing with the copious amounts of dialogue, but there were gaps there, as well.

However, there were some standout performances that charmed even my creaky old heart. I don't have any complaints about the singing or musical preparation, with the exception of the occasional imbalance between orchestra and singers.  My two favorite cast members were Travis Wiley McGuire, who lent his considerable acting skill and resonant bass to Jackie "Tiger" Brown, the police chief; and Jamille Brewster, who played Brown's daughter Lucy with spunk and a capable singing voice that was woefully underused.  I also appreciated the shining vocal talents as Emily Hueske as Mrs. Peachum and Matthew Parker as Macheath.  Dagny McCartney gave a fine acting performance as Jenny, the prostitute who turns in Macheath.  Although Wei-Shu Tsai and Meng-Jung Tsai both seem to be good singers, I fear they were miscast vocally as Mr. Peachum and Polly Peachum, respectively--the roles didn't highlight the best parts of their voices.  Young Martin L. Clark gave a respectable performance of "Mack the Knife" in the introduction as the Ballad Singer.

Surely if there is no adequate English version of the score available, then an opera program of the stature of UNT can commission one.  This kind of a show needs to be in the language of the audience.  And it seemed like much of the dialogue simply seemed underrehearsed, and there was far too much of it.  Some judicious cuts would have made a long show shorter and some seemingly interminable scenes more bearable.  However, these were my only major complaints, and I call it an admirable university-level summer  opera production.  Students gained valuable experience, audience was entertained, and this blogger got a post out of it.


Anonymous said...

It's been a while but I've definitely seen Threepenny Opera done in English at both the student and professional levels so a suitable performing edition must exist.

stray said...

You either go with Blitzstein or Willett/Manheim, and neither is ideal. The thing is a translational monster.