Go see "Mahagonny"!
This is the Metropolitan Opera?!!? Yes, indeed it is -- and gloriously.
Thanks to James Levine's inspired, probing, enlivening conducting, the Weill-Brecht music drama comes to life in a wrenching series of searing, revealing sketches of the fictional but all-too-plausible city of Mahagonny. It is a place where eating, drinking, loving and fighting are glorified; a city where the only capital crime is the inability to pay for the whiskey you drink -- a crime for which the electric chair is the penalty.
Mahagonny is the home of the Do As You Like Tavern, where the signs say: "No spitting," "No Gambling," "No Swearing," No Fighting," "No Credit." That the city is fictional is only another way of saying that it is too many cities you may know all too well. The whole thing is, in fact, the embodiment of the decadent atmosphere of Berlin in the 1920s.
Kurt Weill wrote "Mahagonny" as an opera for opera singers, for an opera chorus and an opera orchestra. Its only problem in Washington until the Met brought its new production to the Kennedy Center last night was a previous production by the Washington Opera that failed in every way to bring the surging power of Brecht and Weill to believable life.
The Met has turned out a vivid and often terribly moving version of Weill's great work. The production is John Dexter's. His gifts as a master of stagecraft have never been more powerfully demonstrated. Among the miracles of the Met's staging is the way its leading singers and superb company take on the personalities of an era none of them ever knew.
Nedda Casei, Gwynn Cornell, Joann Grillo, Isola Jones, Louise Wohlafka and Sherry Zannoth become a sextet of girls of Mahagonny that could put the Thomas Circle girls out of business in no time flat. To hear and see Cornell MacNeil, that famous Verdi baritone, personify the cynicism of Trinity Moses is enough to shake your faith in operatic tradition -- or to reaffirm that faith anew.
To see Lili Chookasian -- the unforgettable Mistress Quickly of Verdi's "Falstaff," that glorious singer of Mahler and Prokofiev -- become the personification of vicious greed as Leocadia Begbick, singing it all magnificently, is to realize the vast wealth of the Metropolitan's roster.
With the unexpected illness of Teresa Stratas, Ariel Bybee took on the leading role of Jenny, and sang and acted it with such tremendous personal magnetism that it was impossible to regret the absence of Stratas. Bybee not only sang "Moon of Alabama" with all the dissolute beauty imaginable, but led every ensemble with ease and the kind of careless, slurred beauty that made you wonder how much time she might have spent in Berlin cafes. She is fabulous in the part and should sing it as often as the Met performs "Mahagonny."
That the whole thing is music theater at a particular height Levine made clear at every moment. He converted the great Met orchestra into an ensemble of soloists capable of playing nightly in support of Marlene Dietrich. Whoever played the saxophone deserves special honors.
Every element conspired to depict the atmosphere Weill and Brecht created. The costumes, the lighting, the makeup of the men's chorus were all on an inspired level. And that men's chorus was one of the most telling elements of the entire affair. There are few women in the opera, but the men, often in small groups, more often in full chorus, have a very special function. Over and over they created some of the most poignant moments of the entire evening.
Every role was ideally portrayed, which means that very special credit goes to Ragnar Ulfung as Fatty, Richard Cassilly as Jimmy, Arturo Sergi as Jacob Schmidt, John Darrenkamp as Moneybags, Paul Plishka as Alaska Wolf Joe and Michael Best for his Toby.
"Mahagonny" is a terrible vulnerable work, one that has suffered from neglect and suffered in inept performances. James Levine has every right to be immensely proud of this extraordinary achievement of the Metropolitan Opera, a realization due largely to his vision and genius.
"Mahagonny" will be performed again next Wednesday.