arts / Drama / jazz / music / opera

Something missing indeed

ROH and the Verfremdungseffekt

“There’s something missing,” sang Kurt Streit as Jimmy McIntyre in the Royal Opera House presentation of Bert Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the city of Mahagonny. He was right. What was missing was any acknowledgment of what differentiates this work from the run-of-the-mill productions we usually see on the ROH stage.

Because this production was a travesty of Brecht and Weill.

The most obvious issue is the bel canto vocal style adopted by all the singers. Associated with the work of Rossini, bel canto was deprecated by Brecht as being “culinary”, the major features of which are “prosodic singing (use of accent and emphasis), matching register and tonal quality of the voice to the emotional content of the words, phrasing based on the insertion of grammatical and rhetorical pauses, delivery varied by several types of legato and staccato, a liberal application of more than one type of portamento, and vibrato” (Wikipedia), notably most of all in this production notably as a warbling vibrato notably on high notes, expressing not the content of what is being sung, but the beauty of the performer’s voice.

In a sense, the artificiality of bel canto might be thought to exemplify Brecht’s dictum that “The actor must not only sing, but show a man singing. . . His aim is . . . to show gestures that are so to speak the habits and usage of the body.” (Notes to the Threepenny Opera)

Though the most eminent performers in what Roswitha Mueller described as the anti-opera of Mahagonny (The Cambridge Companion to Bertolt Brecht, Cambridge University Press, 2006) – Lotte Lenya, for instance, or Ernst Busch – are no longer with us, there are other vocal artisans still living who might have fitted more appropriately into a more faithful representation of the Brechtian aesthetic, such a Gisela May or Ute Lemper (interesting to compare the latter’s different interpretations of Alabama Song on Youtube). They could also be found in the ranks of jazz.

“As for the melody,” Brecht wrote elsewhere, “it must not be followed blindly: there is a kind of speaking-against-the-music which can have strong effects, the results of a stubborn, incorruptible sobriety which is independent of music and rhythm. If he drops into the melody it must be an event.” He could have been describing a jazz vocalist, though many of the greatest practitioners of that craft (Sinatra, Ella, Billy Holiday) are also no longer with us.

It was ironic that the ROH website pictured David Bowie in its coverage of the history of The Alabama Song, since the performances by Bowie or the late Jim Morrison come closer to the energy of the original. Marianne Faithfull might have made a good Jenny; after all, she made a reasonable fist of Anna in The Seven Deadly Sins.

Just as our ears have been so conditioned by constant exposure to the tempered scale that any performance utilising a non-tempered scale (eg Terry Riley’s Sri Camel, Pop Maynard’s Rolling in the Dew) sounds out-of-tune to us, bel canto is regarded as the ne plus ultra of contemporary vocalising, but it is just as artificial. One thinks of Kathleen Ferrier fog-horning her way through Ma Bonny Lad, the song I heard many years before Ferrier’s recording as a five-year-old in a Whitley Bay schoolyard, Kiri Te Kanawa struggling with the songs of Maria in Bernstein’s West Side Story; they just don’t get it.

Nor did Kurt Streit. Nor especially Christine Rice’s Jenny. Even when one knows the words (such as they are), her warbling in Alabama Song gets in the way of the whorish characterisation, and no amount of dry humping with the male members of the chorus can convince us otherwise. (Though far from perfect, the performance by Inga Lisa Lehr on Youtube is better than Rice’s. She’s no Lenya, of course, but then who is?)

This discrepancy was even more evident in Rice’s performance of As You Make Your Bed (Meine Herren, meine Mutter prägte in the original German), which might well be said to apotheosize the moral (or immoral) of the piece, in its echo of the act one finale: “If someone walks on, then it’s me, and if someone gets walked on, then it’s you.”

Interestingly, it was Willard White (who was in a previous Madrid production) whose vocalising interfered least with the Weillian demands of the piece. Perhaps because he had less to prove than other leading members of the cast, he spared us any pyrotechnical irrelevancies, just singing the bloody words, and so his personality was less intrusive.

Nor was the wrongness of the vocals the only thing wrong with this production; in fact, it was symptomatic of the entire enterprise (perhaps, in the spirit of the text, one should call it the entire ROH business). Yes, Brecht did indeed call Mahoganny an opera, but he was redefining the term as EPIC opera, in which music interpreted the words rather than intensifying them.

In his notes to Mahagonny he wrote:

The content of opera is to be brought up to date and its form technologized but without any changes being made to its culinary character. As opera is appreciated by its audience precisely because opera is antiquated, there ought to be a keen interest in attracting an influx of new social strata with new appetites, and this is indeed the case: there is a will to democratize, without of course changing the character of democracy, which consists in giving the ‘people’ new rights but no opportunity to avail themselves of them. At the end of the day, it makes no difference to the waiter whom he is waiting on, all that matters is that somebody is waited on! And so our most advanced thinkers demand or defend innovations that are supposed to lead to the renovation of opera – but what they don’t demand, and doubtless would not defend, is a discussion of opera’s basic principles (its function!).

That this production did indeed serve such a function, in part, was exemplified by the comments Tweeted or Facebooked to the Opera House during the interval, many of them declaring that this was their first opera. But while one viewer described it as a satire on capitalism (it wasn’t, though this misconception appears on Wikipedia), none seems to have reacted critically to the text as Brecht presumably intended.

The setting up of foodbanks throughout the land might well have come to mind as Jacob (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as “Jack” in this production) stuffs himself with baked beans, a revolting demise celebrated by the chorus who hail him as a man without fear, but did the following comment enter any of their thoughts?

“When the glutton gorges himself to death in section thirteen, for example, he does so because of the prevalence of hunger. Although we do not even hint that other people were starving while he was gorging himself, the effect was provocative nonetheless. For even if not everyone who can stuff his face gorges himself to death, there are still lots of people who are starving to death because he is gorging himself to death. His enjoyment is provocative because it incorporates so much.”
(Notes on the opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny)

The discordant scoring during Jacob’s eating was surely intended to counterpoise his enjoyment, just as the happiness of the singing as his obese corpse is carried off ought to be as shocking to us as the political expediency which makes foodbanks essential. But by then we were presumably eating ice-cream or quaffing G&Ts in the interval.

It must be remembered that Brecht played with word games, not only in his texts but also in his commentaries upon them. Dreigroschenoper was not, in fact, an opera, no more than was John Gay’s original. Brecht also refused to be called its librettist. He was, he insisted, its author (a claim that upset Weill quite a bit, so their last, and in many ways most perfect collaboration, The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petty Bourgeoisie, had to be conducted by remote control).

But it was certainly not GRAND opera, which it became on the ROH stage. And in the orchestra pit. The lushness of the orchestral sound was the instrumental analogue of the vocals. There was none of the bite and precision of Weill’s scoring. Obviously, just as coloratura sopranos and tenors find it hard to overcome their mal-trained tendency to dwell on the operatic high notes, violinists cannot easily turn their instruments back into fiddles, whose ancestors should be the ancient crwth (or bowed psaltery), rather than the products of a Stradivarius.

Even when a little jazz band comes on stage with banjo and saxophones, where surely only a twisted genius could get it wrong, the result was still from the wrong page of the culinary menu: a post-prandial petit four rather than a provocative amuse bouche.

It may be that, after observing the reactions of the audiences as Mahoganny’s premiere, Brecht decided to be more direct in his didacticism; in his Lehrstücke (learning pieces rather than teaching pieces), which might be said to have anticipated Bob Dylan’s refusal to tell people what to think – “you’ve got to decide,” (in With God On Your Side). He had already written contradictory playlets, one advocating one course of action (Der Jasager), the other the opposite (Der Neinsager).

This requires, of course, the sort of erudition common among football spectators, just as likely to boo the referee as any of the players.

Of course, it could be argued that the entire business of this production –  a sell-out in both senses of the expression because all seats sold for each performance, though so alien to what we know of Brecht and Weill’s intentions – was a demonstration of Brecht’s much misunderstood Verfremdungseffekt, mis-translated by the late John Willett as the “alienation effect”. Certainly I was alienated sufficiently after the first few scenes to want to rush out of the National Media Museum screaming with rage, identifying with the earth-trembling movement of Bert and Kurt revolving in their graves. (I stayed to the bitter end, however; the audience at the Media Museum left in virtual silence. I found it interesting that they felt unwilling to comment on what they had just seen and heard.)

As an example of culinary consumerism (of music, not of the argument of the piece) it might be described as magnificent. If all you wanted to experience was wonderful singers expressing themselves in front of wonderful orchestral playing, then it was indeed magnificent.

In the end, perhaps we could adapt Pierre Bosquet’s well-known response to the charge of the Light Brigade: “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas Brecht: c’est de la folie.

Une folie de grandeur, in fact.



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