A Threepenny for Your Thoughts
Despite its gritty populism – or perhaps because of it – The Threepenny Opera can be a difficult show to stage. In the wrong hands, author Bertolt Brecht’s searing socialist screed can become more pedantic than playful, robbing the narrative of Mack the Knife and his many women of its cruel wit and low charm. Composer Kurt Weill’s collection of musical styles further complicates the challenge, lending itself to an interpretive chaos in productions where the material is inadequately handled.
In the case of Madison Opera’s version, which opened February 4 in The Playhouse at the city’s Overture Center for the Arts, all the right hands appear to be manning the control. The new production rises above potential artistic squalor while still reveling in the narrative’s seedy milieu. Threepenny’s wink-and-a-nod at the operatic genre, its audience and the social issues raised combine to create a work that masters its material rather than submerging beneath the weight of its parts.
The pre-show buzz, of course, focused on American Players Theatre luminaries James DeVita and Tracy Michelle Arnold in their first-time opera roles as Macheath (Mack the Knife) and Jenny Diver, respectively. Both brought new verve to the production, each in his or her own way.
The Threepenny narrative takes place in Victorian London and centers on the doings of crime boss Macheath on the eve of the queen’s coronation. The well-heeled philanderer has set his sights on Polly Peachum (soprano Alicia Berneche), the daughter of J.J. Peachum (baritone David Barron), the “king of the beggars,” who licenses the legion of poor who beg and commit petty crimes throughout the city. Peachum and his wife (Amy Welk) set about to undo the marriage and see Macheath hanged for his crimes.
The characters comprise all manner of rough trade, and the Peachum’s hypocrisy of not wanting their daughter to marry a criminal – or perhaps not marry one more successful than themselves – speaks to many of the mores of 1928 Berlin, the time and place in which the operetta-cum-music-hall-production premiered. By casting high art into low circumstances, Brecht and Weill hoped to make their obvious point, and the juxtaposition of attributes has made Threepenny the most popular work of both artists.
Broadway director Dorothy Danner has managed to steer the complicated and often self-conscious scenario along a steady course. Backed by a seven-piece combo led by Madison Opera Artistic Director John DeMain, the talent behind the scenes makes what happens on stage compelling rather than cloying, a sign that a great deal of control served to guide Threepenny’s seemingly casual and effortless quality.
As expected, DeVita cuts a dashing figure as Macheath. His villain is one of charm and wit as embodied in the many now-familiar mannerisms that characterize his APT roles. As an acting veteran, DeVita brings more to the dramatic side of Macheath then he does as a first-time singer to the character’s musical responsibilities. However, Threepenny’s low-art approach allows for and, in fact, encourages many rough edges on the production. DeVita’s lack of musical experience is not especially troubling nor out of context here.
The show stealer, however, is Arnold’s Jenny Diver, a prostitute and former lover of Macheath cut to the quick by his marriage to Polly Peachum. In a narrative fraught with comic villainy, Arnold snarls and prowls the stage like a jungle cat caged by her circumstances, the only truly threatening character among a cadre of clowns. The vulnerability and rage let loose during her solo in “Pirate Jenny” raises the sometimes self-indulgent number to new and frightening heights.
However, all’s well that ends well, as it often is in even the most darkly comic opera. Macheath does not hang, remaining free to commit further villainy. Such is the way of society even today, say the producers, closing with a large photo display of embezzler Bernard Madoff and other contemporary multi-million-dollar white collar criminals for those who don’t quite get the point of the show. Thanks to the production’s quality, most of us got the message early on, and if there is a low brow version of gilding the lily, then this might just qualify.