Friday, August 08, 2008

8th August 2008

A weird experience tonight: a concert performance of Brecht/Weill's "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny".

It seems there always was a tension between the two of them when it came to this piece: Brecht wanted write a piece of music theatre that would effectively denounce the evils of capitalism; but Weill wanted to write a piece that would finally win him recognition as a serious composer of opera.

Brecht called it "culinary". By which he seems to have meant it gave audiences pleasure and it made them feel instead of think. The tension came to a head after the Berlin production of 1931, when Brecht called Weill a "phony Richard Strauss".

Obviously no collaboration could survive such an insult.

All these tensions were weirdly enacted in this performance. The "culinary" elements definitely won.

Because it was the opening concert of the Edinburgh Festival, the Usher Hall was packed with a fine showing of representatives of the capitalism Brecht wanted to denounce. The dress circle contained a phalanx of people in evening dress; looking at the whole audience made it very clear that this was definitely not an evening for the poor.

The orchestra were all in white tie and tails; the male chorus in dinner jackets; and although the female chorus had been instructed to wear brightly coloured and low cut evening dresses, come in individually and provocatively flirt with the male chorus (presumably to give the impression of being prostitutes) they did so very half heartedly. One of them sat very self-consciously on a tenor's knee and promptly blushed even pinker than her bright satin dress.

The narrator was a very classy actress whose upper class accent you could cut with a knife; and the perfectly modulated vowels of the operatic soprano sounded very odd as she sang
"Show us the way to the next whisky bar..."

It all sounded so weird as to be surreal.

And I don't know what had changed in the second act. Maybe the conductor was really beginning to draw something special out of the performers; or the music's quality had shot up a notch; or maybe I had simply somehow adjusted to the whole situation.

The conductor - the composer HK Gruber - clearly had a total respect and love and enthusiasm for the music which he communicated with every gesture. By the end the piece had built up to something of utterly brutal, uncompromising, amazing power. Against the background of the burning city, they sang
"Nothing you can do will help a dead man....
Nothing will help him or us or you now!"

And the piece ended, and all the cheers started.

There is something distinctly weird about the way a well heeled audience will applaud and cheer the news of their forthcoming destruction.

True and powerful and amazing as it all was, i didn't feel like joining in.

I did love the conductor, though. He never took a bow for himself. Instead, he was so palpably delighted with everything and everybody, he rushed about applauding them.
He almost crushed the diminutive chorus master to death in a bear hug, kissed all the soloists, dashed up into the female chorus to kiss a woman who had sung three words solo ("This is murder") in a way of which he thoroughly approved. And then he rushed into the orchestra like a happy bear, dragging individual players to their feet and applauding them ecstatically.

I loved that. It sent me home happy.


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