Threepenny Opera: A Naked Lunch, and Morals for Dessert
At Vienna’s Volkstheater, Die Dreigroschenoper dishes up a medley of toe-tapping tunes, tedious nudity, and startling gore
In May 1956, Londoners welcomed Louis Armstrong to the Empress Hall, and looked up at the stage with bemused interest, as his All-Stars breezed through a tune recorded the previous September. With wide eyes and a pearly white grin, Satchmo growled into the microphone: “Ya know…, when that shark bites, with his teeth, babe, scarlet billows start to spread…”
This tune, “Mack the Knife”, was a Mark Blitzstein translation of “Mackie Messer”, from German playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper). At that time, the show was experiencing a successful run at the Theatre de Lys in New York City.
This Moritat, a dark, ironic ballad of interwar Berlin, opens the current production at Vienna’s Volkstheater with a seven-piece combo (directed from the trumpet) sinking into the pit, and a lone street singer standing stolidly on stage. It’s not the guttural gusto of Armstrong, nor the silky crooning of Bobby Darin, who scored a number-one hit with “Mack the Knife”, and a far wail from Ella Fitzgerald’s Grammy-winning gig in Berlin in 1960. On this night, singer Patrick Lammer avoided the swinging vigour of 50s jazz, and instead, set a tone of aching poignance, controlled and also pliable, a portrait of an era in song, much in the style of the 1928 première.
The genesis of The Threepenny Opera is a tale of the same greed and chicanery it attacks on stage. Following a successful run in London of John Gay’s 1728 Beggar’s Opera, co-writer Elisabeth Hauptmann admired the play’s focus on the poor and on its strong female characters, and made a translation that Brecht then reworked into a first draft of the opera. Actually, Hauptmann probably ought to be credited with 80% of the work, including “Barbara’s Song” and the “Jealousy Duet”. Yet, Hauptmann receives little credit in collective memory, and received only 12.5 per cent of the earnings, compared to Weill’s 25 per cent and Brecht’s 62.5 per cent.
Writing about the 1928 debut in her memoir, Vienna-born singer Lotte Lenya, who played the prostitute Jenny in both productions, remembered: “Until the next morning, we didn’t want to believe in our success. Berlin was consumed by The Threepenny Opera. Everywhere, even on the street, people whistled its melodies. [...] Most of them had not even once been to the show!” Lenya, who was married to Kurt Weill, brought her stage presence to the Theatre de Lys for the successful American première in 1954, along with actors later familiar to American television audiences: Bea Arthur (Golden Girls), Charlotte Rae (The Facts of Life), and later Ed Asner (Mary Tyler Moore), and Jerry Stiller (Seinfeld).
For the current Volkstheater production by her husband Michael Schottenberg, Maria Bill fills the big high heels of Lenya as Jenny the prostitute, and commands the stage with the deep-throated, sneering vibrato of a virago. Patrick O. Beck plays the beggars’ gangster boss Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, but offers few memorable moments, perhaps too much like Sting’s portrayal in a 1989 production deemed the “three million penny opera”.
Katharina Straßer takes the role of Polly, Peachum’s daughter who wants to marry Mackie. Her resonating rendition of “Pirate Jenny”, while swinging on a chandelier like a ship’s mast, failed to provoke an ovation. But her crying, howling lament in “Barbara Song” brought deserved applause, in spite of her dipthong-ed accent in German that sounds like an American.
Mackie Messer himself is played by Marcello de Nardo, who with his red-leather get-up and Billy Idol Mohawk looks like he’d rather have a deus ex motorcycle at the end. But the deus ex helicopter was what he got. Unfortunately, the audience was not really on his side.
Schottenberg’s production may be the first major production of Die Dreigroschenoper to feature unabashed nudity among the whores, a facet widely criticised in the German-language media. Unlike last year’s Munich production featuring plastic bosom covers, the four whores tramp around stage in unclothed lassitude, tedious and totally unsexy, leaving one to wonder if the nudity was really necessary.
Schottenberg also found room for gore. In an early shocking gesture, Mackie cuts off a beggar’s finger with a pair of scissors, as the “scarlet billows” spread across the stage. Unnerving as it was, the viewer can admire the stage magic, later transformed to whim when Polly twirls and loses all the red polka dots on her white dress.
In all, the Volkstheater production evokes the vile, “naked lunch” of beat novelist William S. Burroughs, who once recorded the second finale, “What Keeps Mankind Alive”, with the famous line “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral”.
If food comes first and morals come later, you had better come on a really empty stomach.
Die Dreigroschenoper plays at Volkstheater 7, 8, 12, 20, 28 Apr., and 7, 21 May, all starting at 19:30.