Thursday, November 25, 2010

To lose in Mahagonny or Mahagonny in Toulouse: Good show!

Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny [Grandeur et décadence de la ville de Mahagonny], Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse, November 21 2010

Laurent Pelly ..... director
Ilan Volkov ..... conductor

Marjana Lipovsek ..... Leokadja Begbick
Chris Merritt ..... Fatty, der "Prokurist"
Gregg Baker ..... Dreieinigkeitsmoses
Valentina Farcas ..... Jenny Hill
Nikolai Schukoff ..... Jim Mahoney
Roger Padullés ..... Jack O’Brien
Harry Peeters ..... Joe, genannt Alaskawolfjoe
Tommi Hakala ..... Bill, genannt Sparbüchsenbill

Orchestre national du Capitole

And so I went to see a new production of this fantastic opera in Toulouse [over 5 hours ride by TGV-train from Paris].

Toulouse is a very pleasant city to visit but unlike many other larger cities in France there are no particularly nice art galleries or museums. Capitole theater is placed adjacent to the City Hall and like the whole city it looks "bricky" from the outside. You could feel the proximity of Catalonia not only geographically but also culturally -- wrapped up in French charm it is definitely a pleasant place to visit - to wander its many narrow streets enjoy the exuberant bricky façades and admire the tower of the St. Sernin basilica.

The Toulouse Opera House is not large inside -- which is kinda surprising when you know that this city is quite big, that this is the only Opera place there and especially when you know that the house is quite prestigious. In fact, in size it looks smaller inside than Opéra Comique in Paris. Don't get me wrong! I am not complaining. Smaller theaters always benefit in proximity between the public and performers and good shows always make stronger impression on you in humanly sized theaters than in huge halls that often reduce the touchy moment in the shows.

I should repeat that I LOVE this opera and I believe it should be regularly staged everywhere because it carries so many strong messages, it is musically so beautiful, it breaks the traditionalist approach to opera  (yet keeping its essence), and brings more 'real theater' to the opera. It communicates so wonderfully with today's audience regardless of how the director decided to present it: whether he emphasizes the social inequalities, corruption and moral decadence, or he deals with ecological issues, or denounces the system of exploitation, excessive consumption leading to both high profit and trivialization of most (all?) humanistic "moral" values... Whatever you do, it resonates with public today. What I'm trying to say is that there is nothing in this opera to "adapt" to make it talk to a man here and now. You just need a good director who knows how to guide actors and make the story communicate with public.

What about Laurent Pelly's Mahagonny?  Having seen quite a number of operas staged by Laurent, I knew I shouldn't expect too profound take on this masterpiece, but I knew he would be very good in structuring the show to make it vibrant, dynamical and entertaining. Indeed, he does here what he's good at and --together with his collaborator Agathe Mélinand-- makes the sets change constantly to refresh and  accompany the effervescence of the plot. I believe there were about 20 different scenes during the show [excellent job by Barbara de Limbourg!], each emphasizing the satiric character of the piece. While this is the forte side of this show, it is also its weakness as behind the mere satire the director never drills deeper to expose the nastiness of the whole operation Mahagonny, preferring to focus on its funny and entertaining aspects. Of course, the wit of Brecht will strike you anyway, but in small sequences the fun of it is far more favored to a deeper portrayal of any of the characters in the drama which eventually fails to elevate the show to higher artistic achievements (too many explicit gestures leave little to a spectator's imagination; it's sometimes funny, sometimes naive). Having said that, the show is excellent and works very well with public. Even those who do not know this opera can perfectly follow the story without even having read the synopsis.

During the overture a short video is projected on the curtain, showing a car chased by the police. A few moments later the curtain is up and we see the same car stopped on a highway, its engine blowing smoke, and the trio (Leocadia, Fatty and Moses) getting out of that car, happy to have escaped the police and almost immediately starting with plans to build --in the middle of nowhere-- the city of Mahagonny. Some of the key moments: Jack will die of eating too much hamburgers (each one being brought to him in a container you see in any fast food restaurant by one of many sexy ladies); the sex-scene (after the hurricane) is more implicit than in other productions -- men stand in a line in front of one door, pay to Leocadia to enter, she gives them a Kleenex tissue each, they enter on one door (controlled by a big Moses), and --after seeing a peep-show-- they come out from another door, throw the Kleenex out in a trash-bin, pull up their zippers and optionally go back in  line for more. The trial is overly satiric, in which Pelly opted to show as much corruption as it can possibly made explicit on the stage. Finally Jim Mahoney is electrocuted.

The orchestra was absolutely fantastic which is to a good extent due to a young Israeli conductor Ilan Volkov who was simply impeccable. As for the singers Valentina Farkas was good as Jenny. Her physique is a big asset. While the power of her pretty voice can be satisfactory in Toulouse, I'm afraid she wouldn't be able to fill up a larger opera house. Of four man from Alaska, Tommi Hakala has the most beautiful voice even if its 'nobility' does not fit the best with the role of Bill. Nikolai Schukoff is a world class singer and he confirms it here. This is his role debut and he sings it great, with a volume of his voice that immediately distinguishes him from the rest of the crew. He's fully invested scenically and you could tell he gives his best. Pushy as ever when it comes to attacking the top notes, but it works for him and for this otherwise difficult role -- that is Jim Mahoney. He was the most applauded artist in the end and deserved every bit of it. Marjana Lipovsek was much better than I expected her to be and I was happy. I expected a large vibrato to take the best of her singing but I am glad to report that I was wrong, as she manages to mask it very well. Volume was never a problem in her singing and she's not making any bad sound when going from the lower to upper vocal register  (or vice versa). At her age that's more than impressive a performance. Chris Merritt has still that enthusiasm and desire to give his best. After such a tremendous career it is always a pleasure to see him sing live, even when he struggles with intonation more than once during the show. Finally Gregg Baker! Our dear Amfortas from Parsifal in Stuttgart is a little less loud in this role, scenically impressive as ever, manages to hide some troubles pronouncing the German text by his wonderfully plushy voice.

Brilliant opera in a very successful production... was definitely worth a trip to Toulouse!

A few pics I found on the Internet [© Patrice Nin, and Xavier de Fenoyl].

a few CC pics I took:

Roger Padulles, Tommi Hakala, Valentina Farkas, Nikolai Schukoff, Marjana Lipovsek, Gregg Baker, Chris Merritt

Maestro Volkov between Jenny and Jim

a YT video in which a collection of scenes has been edited  (with music that evidently has nothing to do with Mahagonny)

and finally a video from France-3 TV website.

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