The much-hyped production Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny at The Olympia is beleaguered by problems, says David Mullane
A Marxist parable of the rise and fall of capitalism, Mahagonny, by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, is as Brechtian as it gets. The most famous proponent of epic theatre, Brecht wrote to make it so that the audience is always aware that it is watching a play, or an opera in this case.
To this end, epic theatre features bare bones set design, comedy at insensitive times, interruptive narration or visual captions and, just like Carrie Bradshaw did in the first season of Sex and the City, the breaking of the ‘fourth wall’.
This production of Mahagonny employs these elements to alienate its audience but it goes even further for the effect, and one wonders how purposeful this was. That’s what makes a critique of the opera difficult.
Much written about in the papers before opening night, the Olympia Theatre has been redesigned for the show, with a whole bank of stall seats removed to accommodate an orchestra and a new bank of seats constructed on the stage to create a theatre-in-the-round.
This is an exciting design, which offers onstage premium ticket holders the chance to get uncomfortably close to Brecht and Weill’s cast of unsavoury characters, and also the opportunity to Instagram the unusual view from their seats.
However, the primary effects of this design are a dampening of the orchestra, much of which is tucked under the dress circle, the deafening of ticketholders in the stalls nearby the strings section, and a loss of sight lines for those sitting in the gods, due to the shallowness of the performance space below.
Opera singers are opera singers, they are not actors or dancers, and the cast of Mahagonny, while servicing Weill’s eye-wateringly challenging score well, are an uncharismatic, unconvincing bunch, save for a few exceptions, particularly bass-baritone John Molloy, who commands the stage with his booming voice and loud, garish cowhide jacket. Again, you could argue that the raft of unconvincing performances are Brechtian in application, but that would be a charitable argument.
Mahagonny is an opera of reason rather than emotion so the audience needs to be satisfied with ideas and essays of thought, because it will not be provided with a juicy plot or melodramatic catharsis. The creative team spoke much of the connection the opera has with our recent economic woes, but aside from some vernacular winks and Irish accents, this show does not present any cogent contemporary points. In the absence of any respectable polemic, the audience is abandoned.
Albeit a failed project, the opera is a grand, bold and brave project, a spectacle on a scale rarely mounted in Ireland, outside of the Wexford Festival Opera. It is debatable whether that is reason enough to purchase a ticket.
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