Mark Gresham | 26 APR 2021
“Nowhere in the streets of London may one escape the sight of abject poverty, while five minutes’ walk from almost any point will bring one to a slum; but the region my hansom was now penetrating was one unending slum.”
So wrote American author Jack London, in his 1903 account, The People of the Abyss, his firsthand account of life in the East End of London. The Victorian Era had ended only two years before with the death of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, whose reign lasted from June 20, 1837 until her death on January 22, 1901.
Well before her ascent to the throne, the Industrial Revolution had already begun creating major changes in British society, and by the beginning of Victoria’s reign mechanized factories had become the new workplace – a change that was accompanied by rapid urbanization. In the 1820s, London was already the largest city in the world, the world’s largest port, and the center of international finance and trade. At the same time, the United Kingdom experienced a rapid increase in population, poverty, debauchery and crime. These problems were magnified in London, where the population grew at record rates.
This time and place – specifically London in the days leading up to the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837 – provides the setting for the story told in The Threepenny Opera, the latest production by The Atlanta Opera, which had its opening night last Thursday and is running concurrently with the company’s production of The Threepenny Carmen on alternating nights.
The telling of that story, however, is thoroughly contemporary.
Atlanta actor Tom Key plays the story’s Narrator, and his attire of necktie, maroon sweater, light Chino slacks and a pair of totally retro Oxford canvas tennis shoes gives him all the appearance of a Mister Rogers for adults, taking the audience to an exceptionally gritty land of make-believe comprised of criminals, beggars, corrupt cops and prostitutes, populated as much by puppets as people. Occasionally the people wear their own over-sized puppet heads., amplifying the effect.
While The Threepenny Opera has long been a familiar work performed within the world of puppetry arts, for The Atlanta Opera, the use of puppetry in this condensed production (through collaboration with the Center For Puppetry Arts) was a creative method of dealing with safety issues posed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Here, puppets replace the chorus for group scenes; puppet heads for the singers at times are an additional safety measure which allows singers to move about rather than be enclosed in immobile plastic booths (though most of the time they simply sing through masks).
The distillation of the libretto down to its essentials, to keep the show within 100 minutes duration, also allowed for the redaction of seven minor characters, thus reducing the on-stage singing or speaking cast by almost half – yet another safety factor, but in some ways it strengthens the production rather than weakening it.
Not surprising, in that The Threepenny Opera has always been a stage work that is fully capable of being reconstituted and rearranged to some degree. Brecht and Weill did so themselves on occasion. The reassignment of songs is just one factor in that creative mutability, but a most important one.
In the case of this Atlanta Opera production, that flexibility is demonstrated first of all by the best-known of them, “The Ballad of Mack the Knife,” being sung by the arch criminal Macheath (Jay Hunter Morris) himself rather than a Street Singer (who normally is also Narrator). The almost equally popular “Pirate Jenny” is restored to the character Polly Peachum (Kelly Kaduce) as it was in the original 1928 production rather than by one of Macheath’s former love interests, the prostitute Jenny Diver (Gina Perregrino), as it was in the 1931 film by Austrian director G. W. Pabst. The fact that Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya portrayed Jenny in both is likely a reason so many productions cling to the latter rather than the original.
In opera, Mozart and Verdi are examples of composers whose music moves the drama along. That is not the case with Weill’s music, where the songs interrupt the action rather than drive it forward. Instead, the action and dialogue get to a point where they demand a song intervene. (Something that is more a hallmark of American musicals.)
Despite Brecht’s intent that The Threepenny Opera be remembered most for its social satire, it’s Weill’s music that entertains and wins over the audience. That’s not to say the biting satire has no impact. Certainly it comes through in the songs: the “Morning Hymn” of Jonathan Peachum (the animated Kevin Burdette) or the raucous “Cannon Song” by Macheath, Tiger Brown (Joshua Conyers) and puppets, just to name two.
With the intensity of social satire, it’s important to remember that The Threepenny Opera is adult-themed, not meant for children. Much of the social commentary can be related directly to our own times, but not necessarily in the manner pf the 19th or early 20th centuries. Certainly parallels can be drawn between the 1830w, the late 1920s and the early 2020s, but audience perception of those may vary greatly.
I personally find it easy to compare manipulation of the poor by Mr. Peachum for profit with the current day manipulation of protesters by certain activist organizations for profit and power – in particular the scene where Peachum threatens Chief Brown with the specter of all of the beggars under his control lining the streets for Queen Victoria’s coronation celebrations. Not far off from today’s demonstrations and protests, and activist pressures on politicians and corporations to comply with their agenda, or else.” I’d wager that is not likely what activist Brecht would have intended to communicate, had he been able to see this far into the future. But that’s how it came across to this viewer, given the enormous overall problems of vagrancy and homelessness which persist in our day, and the greater opportunity for manipulation of the genuinely poor and disenfranchised by various entities seeking political power as well as money.
Yet even through the broad shopping window of satire, the reflected problems of the past seem to pale with the immediacy of the civil crisis of our own day, and I don’t mean just the pandemic. Even without the pandemic, we have a social strife, at least here in the United States, that is unlikely to deescalate anytime soon on its own, and we’d better pay close attention.
[Video embedded from Facebook]
Those heavy reflective misgivings aside, at least in the world of opera there is always hope for a happy ending, even if ironic or forced. Through the theatrical device of deus ex machina, the tragic fate of Macheath is subverted in grand Handelian fashion. Queen Victoria herself sends a mounted royal messenger to intervene and not only free but reward the wayward criminal – much like as is too often done in the justice system today, some would suggest. The audience gets their happy ending, with a horse. After all, it’s just not proper to send a royal messenger without a horse, of course.
Those echoing misgivings aside, I find this Threepenny Opera is a strong production with a strong, well-balanced ensemble cast – something that is often is the case with The Atlanta Opera. The dark but playful irreverence, colorful costuming, excellent singing and acting, and engaging music will hold your attention, with one or more Weill’s tunes still rolling in your head as you head out of the tent at the end and make your way home. Like the concurrent but very different Threepenny Carmen, it’s a show that is very much worth your while. The production runs through May 9. ■