Monday, October 10, 2011

Mahagonny in Antwerp: Whata show!

Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, Flanders Opera in Antwerp (Vlaamse Opera), October 9th 2011

Director ..... Calixto Bieito
Conductor ..... Yannis Pouspourikas
Sets ..... Rebecca Ringst

Jim Mahoney ..... John Daszak
Leocadia Begbick ..... Leandra Overmann
Fatty der Prokurist ..... Erin Caves
Dreieinigkeitsmoses ..... Claudio Otelli
Jenny Hill ..... Noëmi Nadelmann
Jack O'Brien/Tobby Higgins .... Gijs Van der Linden
Sparbüchsen Billy ..... William Berger
Alaska Wolf Joe ..... Jaco Huijpen
Acteur ..... Guntbert Warns

Symphonic Orchestra of the Flanders Opera
Flanders Opera Chorus


Calixto strikes again by directing one more great, huge show. This show probably contains more "shocking scenes" than his previous ones, but it should be hardly surprising knowing the nature of the piece itself. Importantly though, underneath the flashy images there is always a big heart of Calixto, who has a deeply humanistic approach to any given topic he deals in his productions. Moreover this show reveals once again the outstanding dimension of his talent. He never uses the imagery to distract you but to make you think fast and dig deeper into the issue he throws raw in front of you and then dissect it in many possible ways --rarely taking sides (except when being humanistic!) and never giving lessons to anyone. Finally, his theatrical genius is not only in deftly decomposing the core of his show but also in being thought provocative with his public -- he wants you to understand your own relation with that subject of his show: be it the corporate world (Hollander), the immigration issue (Aida), personal liberties in the 21st century (Fidelio), prostitution (Entführung), human power as a tool for autodestruction (Armida), confronting the death (Carmélites), your own faith (Parsifal)... As he said it in the trailer I've posted on this blog a couple of weeks ago, he does not use the story of Mahagonny to denounce something. He just paints the image of the society as it is today -- of course exaggerated, but only slightly.

A decade ago you would say Mahagonny was a caricature of the wild capitalism in America, but today the consumerism went global and we can say "We [all] are Mahagonny!" --as Bieito makes many characters of this show carry the pieces of cardboard box with those words written all over.

To recount the details of this show would be too tall a task for a single blog entry. I could bet that each show in this run is peculiar because so many gags look so spontaneous that it is next to impossible to repeat them every other night. I was laughing to tears most of the time but in the end, while feeling thrilled after such a grand/memorable show, I had a bittersweet moment of a scary question running through my head: Are we really this close to being Mahagonny?!

I truly hope this will be released on DVD, not only because this is the best production of Mahagonny you may possibly see anywhere in the world today, but also because of the impact this production might have on you, me... on all of us. I loved the Madrid production staged by La Fura dels Baus (DVD released and wholeheartedly recommended!), I very much enjoyed the Laurent Pelly production I saw in Toulouse last year, but Calixto brought to a whole new level.

Instead of recounting the this 300mph fast-paced show that contains thousands of details --most of which are funny or a mirror image of the Western society today-- I'll only mention some elements that I found particularly poignant.

Calixto OF COURSE uses his platform to talk about those that we call today "1%", i.e. men in black, those who're pulling the strings, who make the obscene money and still stimulate people to consume more and more and more and more... People, on the other hand, grab every such incentive, feel their ego being cuddled and spend, spend, spend.... over-consume. Middle class is celebrated just for its capacity to consume. In the process of selling everything the consumers are ever more involved. People's ego is played up more: it is fascinating to see all those peops today who believe there is a star in him/her waiting a right call to jump out to the limelight.

So, behind the whole Mahagonny project there is a rich man in black who is basically sitting through the entire show, observing the development and only occasionally takes part in what happens in Mahagonny. Sometimes he's amused by what he has to see, but  most of the time he's actually bored (it's so easy making money that way). While bored he, for example, tears a dozen of condoms (ha!),  is watching cartoons (sic! - those people actually never needed to grow up), or plays with a flip-camera enjoys watching the close shots of himself... Only when Jim Mahoney declares not to have any more money left, the man in black jumps on a  van, shows a big sign "We accept all types of credit cards!" and then waves ostentatiously a large banner of Mahagonny to make sure the people of Mahagonny continue to support him even then, when there is no more money to spend.

He is ready to use everything, to stimulate people to spend. At the beginning of the show he presents a little girl next to him as his daughter. When the crisis came (people over-consumed and are not keen to pay extra money for sex, booze, and/or food), he sees a potential in his underage daughter to be a new attraction on the stage [a van that opens laterally becomes a stage on which you see the half-nude girls.] Sexuality of younger and younger girls is used to attract the public attention and then to 'incentivise' consumption/spending. [When closed on the same van is written "Ich liebe der Wirtschafte Krise!]

Yes, "Sex sells!" is the line that you can find in any production of this opera, so you obviously find it here too. Moses is here actually a priest who is selling condoms, he takes off his cassock to fight Joe (in a match that looks like one of the ProWrestling shows with cheerleaders...), it was him who beat Jim when he said he had no money; he definitely does not resist the temptation of a young girl coming up to him, and finally it was him who plugged the batteries to execute Jim Mahoney. In short, he does everything to please the man in black. Being priest is only the camouflage, plus it gives him right to manipulate with people. In the end --when the world becomes tired of the female nudity-- he (Moses) will be the one who will propose the world the male nudity: not his own, obviously, but one of the Mahagonny men who he manipulates skillfully. Everything is for sale!

The world painted Bieito looks like a continuation of Machiavelli's prediction. "God is Money! Money is God!" The basic human friendliness is replaced by incommensurable hypocrisy and greed. In the end Jenny cries for Jim who is about to be electrocuted, while his friend Jack comes as if to comfort her, but eventually he rapes her badly [the moment they both (sic!) reach orgasm, Moses switch on the batteries connected to the shopping cart and electrocutes Jim.]

Funny details are so many... it is impossible to enumerate. In the beginning of the show there is a guy who is 'religiously' exercising -- doing lots of push-ups and sit-ups to: (a) have more sex; (b) it's a necessary condition to become famous; (c) define your sex-appeal and make money off of it.

With all the obscenity, egocentricity, and over-consumption going on, it is 'funny' to see one guy on the stage wearing a t-shirt with "Unicef" written on it.

Jack is constantly rubbing his penis (I'm sure you all have met this type of people and asked yourselves why they're doing it: to emphasize their manhood, or exhibit their dominating sexuality)

When they bring a piano on the stage, the guy who actually plays it is in fact sitting on a toilet (non-stop music, no need for bathroom breaks?), and again a nude girl is on the same piano -- sex sells!
The binge-eating episode starts with all kinds of sausages, salami...  piled up on a naked female body (Lady Gaga reference?!)  Food is also given a publicity of sexual pleasure and people are supposed to eat it incessantly. Many will consume cigars because they too are branded as a source of sexual pleasure.

Opening of the second act looks like taken from Jersey Shore: Jim and Jenny make hotdogs (you can visualize the way Jenny eats them, and why the hotdogs are served the way they are...), she wears high heels, blonde wig... 100% bimbo-look, while he wears a glittery shirt, fancy sneakers and... and both use the product to tan faster. ;)

Sex sells more and more... and everything can be used as aphrodisiac. All limits are pushed away as long as they allow to make money off. At one point men and women completely exchange the roles in all sorts of Kama Sutra poses -- anything goes, just to sell out!

To make the mirror side of the story with what our society looks like today, Calixto in the last part of his show decided to let the crew loose: they got off the stage to perform from within the audience; the chorus members went to the balconies and everyone was singing the closing aria "We are Mahagonny!", two banners with "We are Mahagonny!" unfold on both sides of the stage, pinup girls (naked or partly naked) walk through the auditorium carrying big signs "I love Mahagonny!"...

I'm telling you, this show was unforgettable in every way you see it. Again, you cannot stop laughing most of the time, but in the end a natural question "Are we really that close to this picture?", deep down terrifies you. If a satire is supposed to make that effect on you anyway, then this one was a major success.

Ah yes, I forgot a moment when you see on the screen of "the man in black" showing people who filmed their faces while they were masturbating [how egocentric you should be to do that?!... and yet there are thousands of such videos pending all over the Internet!] Calixto is basically showing that side of ordinary people that the men in black can use for his own profit.
The only detail from the show that I could not really recognize in the world we live in was when Moses took the blood from Jim's entrails to do his mass, while some other people used it as aphrodisiac. Is Calixto being ahead of the curve there?! (shudder)

Everyone involved in this show deserves his/her share of praise. It is superbly acted at every instant of the show. Scenically it is very complex for actors. They are many on the stage and many actions occur simultaneously. It is dangerous too because Mahagonny is displayed as a three levels pile of vans: maneuvering through, jumping from one onto another is dangerous, acting on the slick rooftops is tough... but all the crew seemed totally at ease, enjoying the show as much as we did.

John Daszak sang wonderfully in what is his role debut. His voice is rich and powerful (Loge!), his acting skills are extraordinary -- Oscar worthy: it is of course his talent, but it is also in part due to Calixto who brought the best out of him. To me, this is the reference Jim Mahoney! (I really hope this production will have its DVD release -- you must see John's performance)
Very impressive performance by Jenny too [Noëmi Nadelmann]. The rape scene must have been particularly difficult for her to act through. Her powerful voice was a great benefit to the show too!
I feel I would be unfair if I singled out anyone else. They were all wonderful and deserve a big bravo each: superb Claudio Otelli, excellent William Berger, Erin Caves, Gijs Van der Linden, Leandra Overmann. Thank you guys for such a fantastic show! And I must say once again that this is one of the most compelling operatic works ever written.

This excellent orchestra was particularly focused throughout the show and maestro never ran a risk of drowning the singers. Great job!

Production photos (© Annemie Augustijns/Vlaamse Opera):

My pics:

Leandra Overmann and the wonderful John Daszak

Jaco Huijpen, William Berger, Claudio Otelli

Noëmi Nadelmann and Erin Caves

Can you see "Unicef" on this t?

Final aria (see the chorus on the balcony, while the cast got off the stage to connect with the crowd -- i.e. to identify with the crowd)

This is the only pic in which I managed to capture maestro Pouspourikas (between Jenny and Jim)

and for completeness I re-post the trailer:


  1. Hi Cake - the reason they have UNICEF on the shirt is that it is a Barcelona shirt from pre 2011 season...

  2. Thx Deb! That makes the satirical effect even scarier (more real)

  3. John Daszak is so incredibly HAIRY! His chest, his upper arms, his back, his whole body is covered with fur! I love that!