Photo – Jörg Brüggemann

This is a very German experience. The members of the Berliner Ensemble, connected with Berthold Brecht’s own theatre, deliver the words of the songs and the dialogue in the clearest of German, complete with guttural Berlin ‘r’s and Plattdeutsch final ‘e’s. Elizabeth Hauptmann’s translation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera became, in Brecht’s hands, a biting satire of contemporary life in a late 1920s Germany sliding into depression. Gone are the parodies of opera which give The Beggar’s Opera its name; Hauptmann/Brecht’s play enters the 1920s world of cabaret, an entry thoroughly cemented by Kurt Weill’s biting, acerbic score.

The program contains a long and very German article by Sibylle Baschung, perhaps mercifully shortened for Adelaide audiences, discussing what The Threepenny Opera is and isn’t. It quotes Brecht researcher Werner Hecht’s remark that while ‘The Beggar’s Opera of 1728 was a disguised critique of open social problems, The Threepenny opera of 1928 is an open critique of disguised social problems’.

Does that help?

In Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, written in 1922, the immoral Captain famously says to Wozzeck ‘Er hat kein Moral.’ In the period of Hitler’s rise to power in the late 1920s morality was constantly called into question. Morality is an issue for some of the characters in The Threepenny Opera, but most of the action takes place in a deeply amoral sphere below the level of sordid. The villain Macheath, superbly sung in this production by Gabriel Schneider, is centre stage the entire time, and is an anti-hero who revolts us at the same time that we admire him. His weakness and final undoing is lust, ‘die sexuelle Hörigkeit’, played out among prostitutes; but as he is being hanged at the end of the show he is at the last minute reprieved (by means of bribery) and utters a word that quotes from the end of Goethe’s Faust: ‘Gerettet’ (rescued). In fact, Macheath, a grotesque parody of the character of Faust, is as close as you are ever likely to find to an autobiographical sketch of Brecht himself – who counted Hitler among his friends.

The rest of the cast is superb. Tito Nest is a convincing Peachum, very moral except when he’s not. Constanze Becker, who played his wife, showed that she was quite at home in the underworld of prostitution, and sang with a seductive, limpid silkyness. Laura Balzer made the character of Lucy both engaging and repulsive at almost the same moment. And Julia Berger, as Jenny, sang the Pirate Jenny song with spell-binding timing, which is crucial to making some sort of sense of this song. It has no plot function, but extreme message function, as Pirate Jenny speaks of killing all the people in the city – and the audience uncomfortably realises she might mean all of them as well as all the characters in the play.

Weill’s music, in the style of the dens of Berlin, brilliant as it is, is not beautiful, refracting the morally dystopic plot with alarming accuracy. The music is written into this twisted narrative by changing keys in ways which completely undermine your sense of what is right (that is, if you have any sense of that left). It was played with brutal panache by the band led by Adam Benzwi, Nathan Plante’s trumpet playing in particular treading the fine line between sentimentality and satire.

Barrie Kosky’s production swam into this moral maelstrom in several ways. He used Rebecca Ringst’s set design of Esher-like rectangles, which constantly changed their arrangement as they came forward and retreated along railway tracks, as a structural but abstract framework for the show. He had the cast members find places to sing on these rectangles, athletically sliding from one to another, where they sang as if they were temporarily detached from the plot. This very much reflected the way 18th century opera arias tended to be self-contained and, as Gluck complained, interrupted the flow of the drama. But there is little vestige of plot drama in this cabaret piece – many of the songs seemed to have been dropped into the story like a drop-in cricket pitch, such as Jenny’s song of dreaming to be a pirate, and Macheath’s song of sexual dependency. Kosky also addressed the not-opera-like nature of this collaboration between Brecht and Weill by having the characters interact, pantomime-like, with the audience. Polly, beautifully sung and acted by Cynthia Micas, who has a superb stage presence, said to the audience that she couldn’t sing; could someone volunteer? The cast also interacted with members of the band; such moments of improvisation drawing the action very much into the present.

But this very present was also problematic. Here was a well-heeled, bourgeois audience, who certainly live by and large ‘in Wohlstand’ (comfortably off) watching this show about people at the very bottom of the heap socially, in which the main characters not only excuse their criminal actions by saying what else can they do? but by implication blame just such people as formed most of the audience for their abject state. It reminded me forcibly of that moment in Alan John’s opera about the building of the Sydney Opera House, The Eighth Wonder, in which the Sydney socialites drinking champagne on the royal yacht ask ‘What are the poor doing tonight?’

Another paradox in this paradox-laden evening was to reflect how this socialist protest work has become part of the Western canon, to the extent that the Berliner Ensemble can attract the likes of Barrie Kosky to direct it … Kosky’s work thrives on the contradictions of this play. Although at its premiere almost 100 years ago the audience were more entertained than provoked, it is hardly an evening to enjoy. No sooner have you got on its wavelength, so to speak, than the rug is pulled unceremoniously from under your feet. Yet nonetheless one must see the production – not to be entertained, not to be provoked, but perhaps most of all to be unsettled.

Event details

Adelaide Festival 2024
The Threepenny Opera
Berliner Ensemble

Director Barrie Kosky

Venue: Her Majesty's Theatre | Grote Street, Kaurna Country, Adelaide SA
Dates: 6 – 10 March 2024
Tickets: $259 – $127
Bookings: www.adelaidefestival.com.au

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