IN: Reviews

BLO’s Cool Opry


Pablo Santiago’s Feinigeresque light beams “architecture” programmed by Mike Wellman (Maxx Finn photo)

What is it, historians and critics have wondered, a play with music, vaudeville, Singspiel, beggars’ opera, cabaret, a mix of jazz and German dance music? Moments of vaudeville, a touch of jazz, episodes of  slapstick, and a good heaping of what we know as opera, not to mention minimalism, abounded in Boston Lyric Opera’s Threepenny Opera.

The company advertised, “In keeping with its roots as a piece of theater, and because it was composed to be sung by performers from a wide range of musical backgrounds, BLO will present The Threepenny Opera without supertitles.” And how much of BLO’s known proclivity for recasting what is old with what is new would spring up at its Friday opening night at the Huntington Avenue Theater?

We heard an English translation by long-time Village Voice drama critic, Michael Feingold. The 11-player, 21-instrument band under BLO Conductor David Angus and the translation hewed closer than we expected to the Brecht-Weill original.

Though a bit bawdy, nothing in this production directed by James Darrah shocked or surprised, certainly not by today’s standards, or in the way it outraged middle class morality in its premiere. The F-bomb brought only a single titter from among the packed housed. At first, action on the stage mostly stood still, steam—not steaminess— gradually picking up as BLO headed toward intermission. After that, both performers and the Friday evening throng came alive.

Despite the warmish brownish set by Julia Noulin-Mérat, coolness persisted. The non-place-specific walls stretched to the stage’s upper limits. The concept reminded this writer of the famous Peter Brook production of Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat involving inmates instead of the poor.

Pablo Santiago’s minimalist lighting whose shifting geometric streams projected down from those upper limits created an icey layer of symbolism which may have belied the Brechtian theater of earthiness.

Surely a highpoint of the BLO production came from Costumer Charles Neumann, who said of his work: “The color palette is intentionally muted and absent of high levels of saturation. The clothing is tinged and dusted with dirt and grime…” Semi-clad prostitutes he had dressed in white.

Mirroring Neumann, Brett Hodgdon quarupling on harmonium, celesta, piano, and electronic keyboards, embraced Weill’s jazz influenced instrumental palette and, more particularly, superbly advanced the caustic feeling of the music’s Weimar decadence. David Angus meticulously kept balances intact and his orchestra playing clean, perhaps too clean. When Macheath sang offstage, the orchestra blended so as to recall the kind of blue cool of Miles Davis.

But mostly BLO only flirted with the dismissive, the down and dirty. We missed a decadent class-conscious snarl.

Baritone Christopher Burchett who starred in the role of murderer/pimp Macheath, (Mack the Knife), appeared with 20s spats but sported hair cut high on the head that may have carried a modern military meaning. His command of the Brecht/Weil speech-singing felt idiomatic. He found effective expression in his encounters with Chief of Police, Tiger Brown, played by baritone Daniel Belcher who uncovered a natural character. However, the two dived too deeply into broad capers.

Mr. Peachum’s preachments from James Maddalena steadily echoed courtly voices more like those from the Amadeus movie than from Pabst’s 1931 Threepenny film [HERE]. Mrs. Peachum’s mothering from Michelle Trainor may have come the closest of any of the cast to the talkies and cabaret elocution so yearned for here. She may even have hinted at Cindy Lauper’s own ways with Weill.

Soprano Kelly Kaduce, as Polly Peachum, adventured out of that ideal type of singing thought of as operatic and that made for engaging listening. Her stagey zeal, though, like Trainor’s, could have some rolling their eyes.

Soprano Chelsea Basler as Lucy and mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum as Jenny employed overly dignified mainstream operatic elocution. A fine complement of whores, gang members, and beggars—some 20 in all—heightened the topsy-turvy.

Two weekends of three performances each remain on the docket.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).


4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I saw the same performance and second most of his comments. OK, curiously uneven. I missed supertitles; maybe 25% of what they were saying/speaking I couldn’t understand up in the balcony and the sound was uneven there. Most telling: at performance end the applause for an opening night was a bit perfunctory and virtually no one stood for the ovations and some started gathering their coats quickly to steal a march on getting out into the cold. Not enthusiastic. I’ve seen a Beggar’s Opera (Castle Hill 1986 I think), then a Threepenny (Brandeis 1988 I believe), the 1931 German movie auf Englisch, now this one. Yes, I learned from the program there are radically different versions of Threepenny so I’ve seen two different takes of Brecht/Weill–fortunately. If this is authentic orchestration fine but I prefer the other one as there were numbers I really wanted to hear again. As I mentioned at a talk-back in 1988 Brecht/Weill’s Marxism made them omit a rich bit from The Beggar’s Opera–after Macheath gets a pardon FOUR more wives show up. Real Screwball comedy!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — March 18, 2018 at 10:14 pm

  2. The following anecdote isn’t meant as self-serving, but rather as a record of my greatest musical loss:

    In 1965 I was a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii and auditioned for the keyboardist in “Threepenny Opera.” I got the job, eventually playing piano, celeste, and harmonium from a swivel chair, dressed in black jeans and black tee-shirt, cigarette dangling from my lips. I was then assigned to be accompanist for all the singers auditioning for the main roles. One of the young women, a senior at the time, auditioned for the role of Jenny and was clearly extraordinary. She sat seductively on the piano-lid and broke into Pirate Jenny’s song about the ship with eight sails, and blew all of our minds away with her “echt-Berlin” rendition. We offered her the role on the spot, and she accepted. Three days later, she regretfully backed out, having won her first professional gig on the mainland beginning at the same time as our opening. We were cruelly disappointed. Her name was Bette Midler.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — March 19, 2018 at 10:22 am

  3. I cannot give any positive comments except for the exemplary instrumental playing. The talked dialog was screeched; the sung ornament was (mostly) pedestrian, though Molly hit some figurative high notes. All in all, the performance was loud, dull, and depressing. I know the Three Penny Opera is not a fun fest, but there should be hot blood and acid intonations.

    Comment by Jerry Cohn — March 19, 2018 at 4:42 pm

  4. I might add that for me the overture was unevenly performed, like parts were missing in a minimalized production. True I saw opening night and I’ve rarely been in the further reaches of the balcony but I won’t sit there anymore. Loud (the overture could have been done louder!), Dill, and Depressing. Good description. I remember now BLO wants comments from me–I can give them an earful!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — March 25, 2018 at 12:49 pm

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