- Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Kurt Weill, and: Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny by Kurt Weill
Composed in 1929, with a libretto by Berthold Brecht, the opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny numbers among Kurt Weill’s most important works for the stage, though as Jürgen Schebera has remarked, it may also be considered “the great antithesis of traditional opera.” Even as the work uses many of the trappings of opera—overture, bel canto arias, ensembles and chorus—it also employs jazz and cabaret tunes, some spoken dialogue, and eschews some of the narrative flow of traditional opera in favor of a sequence of twenty-one closed scenes. Moreover, courtesy of Brecht, Mahagonny also serves as a work of socio-political satire: an uncompromisingly severe critique of the contemporary bourgeoisie and capitalism, it offers a bleak and unironic portrayal of modern life and the self-interested pursuit of wealth.
Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny is set somewhere in the American west, and tells the story of an opportunistic trio of fugitives who build a city in the desert, in the hopes of attracting nearby gold prospectors and their money. The city soon draws the disenfranchised and disaffected: “sharks,” including prostitutes like Jenny Smith and her girls, along with lumberjacks like Jimmy Mahoney and his friends. Mahoney soon begins to rail against the city’s strictures, advocating instead a philosophy of indulgence and permissiveness. After days of fighting, drinking, cavorting and gambling, he runs out of money, cannot pay his bills and is locked in jail. Following a farcical [End Page 162] public trial, Jim is sentenced to death. As Jim goes to the electric chair and the city slowly descends into chaos, the residents of Mahagonny mock God—who cannot condemn them to hell because they are trapped in a kind of hell on Earth—and mourn their lot: they are doomed, unable to help themselves, or anyone else.
The most striking differences between the DVD recordings of Mahagonny under review here—the Salzburger Festspiele and Teatro Real Madrid performances—are obvious from the outset. The Salzburg production is traditional: it is sung in the original German (with a few English numbers) and employs rather literal staging, setting the opera somewhere in the American west, roughly during the gold rush era, as the libretto suggests. The Madrid performance is very contemporary, combining modern dress with more abstract and provocative staging; it is also sung in English throughout. Ultimately, both interpretations are reasonable and valid. At Madrid, for instance, the opera opens with a completely bare stage, in accordance with the libretto’s references to a desert landscape; Mahagonny is then built up upon this barrenness, and the stage is gradually filled in with buildings. At Salzburg, the interpretation is more metaphorical: the opera opens with the stage awash in junk and garbage; the city is then literally and figuratively built upon this foundation of trash and corruption, which remains visually present in the background throughout.
The soloists and orchestral performances on both DVDs are unimpeachable; the chorus on both discs is particularly strong. The Madrid version sounds a little warmer and fuller (it is a much more recent recording—the Salzburg performance was recorded in 1998, the Madrid performance in 2010), and Measha Brueggergosman as Jenny is an undeniable presence, both musically and dramatically (though some of her numbers, like the famous “Alabama Song” are over-sung and fuzzy). Salzburg is simply a very solid and traditional production, sticking close to the libretto, with consistently good singing in the main roles: Jerry Hadley as Jimmy and Catherine Malfitano as Jenny are especially well paired...