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Actually Sung

Weill and Brecht's 'Threepenny Opera',
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


Most performances of Bertholt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Die Dreigroschen Oper owe a great stylistic debt to the performance tradition arising partly from our knowledge of the original performances and partly with the performances involving Lotte Lenya in the 1950s. Though by the 1950s Lenya's smokily dark voice was very different from the girlish soprano which she used on the 1930s recordings of the piece. This performance tradition has tended to emphasise the half spoken/half sung method of delivery, which renders expression rather at the expense of Weill's music.

Undoubtedly Weill intended the piece for singing actors, rather than opera singers. But the sophistication of the music and Weill's use of operatic parody mean that actors can sometimes be pushed well out of their comfort zones. To cast it with opera singers might seem perverse, but we are entitled to try, to challenge tradition once in a while so see what happens.

At London's Barbican Centre on Saturday 13 June 2009, H K Gruber conducted a concert performance of Die Dreigroschen Oper with a cast of opera singers based around the Macheath of Ian Bostridge. I must confess that beforehand, I had been a little unsure about the performance, but in fact it proved to be remarkably illuminating, with Weill's music responding to the care and attention that the singers gave it. The work was given without the spoken dialogue, but with a narration given by Christoph Bantzer based on the one Brecht wrote for the 1930 film of the work.

Bostridge was not obvious casting for Macheath; John Mauceri's 1990 recording used heldentenor Rene Kollo in the part. Bostridge prove a remarkably effective Macheath, singing with firm tone, creating a wonderfully oleaginous impression and not in the least precious. The part did seem to lie a little low for Bostridge and despite the use of discreet amplification, there were moments when the band dominated too much.

Dorothea Röschmann was Polly, giving her a naively innocent air, but with an element of toughness. Her account of Pirate Jenny was a little disappointing; perhaps it was Gruber's brisk speed, but Röschmann's account did not seem to favour the words in the way it should have. I rather wished that the song had been allocated to Jenny, so it could have been sung by Angelika Kirschlager. Röschmann and Bostridge made a strong impression in their duet. But where Röschmann's operatic training proved invaluable was in the Jealousy Duet, where Röschmann and Cora Graaf were utterly brilliant in Weill's mock operatics.

Polly's parents were played by Hanna Schwarz and H K Gruber. Schwarz brought her substantial mezzo to bear on the Ballad of Sexual Obsession, whilst still showing a good feel for the the words. H K Gruber (who sang and conducted) was billed as a chansonnier. His delivery was notable in its own way, but markedly different in style from the rest of the cast. Florian Boesch was luxury casting as Tiger Brown.

Angelika Kirschlager was simply brilliant as Jenny, even if deprived of Pirate Jenny. She invested the Salomon Song and her duet with Bostridge with a weary yet sexy glamour. Of all the cast, she seemed to be the one willing to let go a little and to create a real character in her two solos.

The small band, Klangforum Wien, was rather larger than the seven member group which premièred the piece, though in 1928 most players doubled and tripled on instruments. They created a lively and sophisticated accompaniment, shining in their own right in all the interludes. H K Gruber presided over everything with benign discipline.

German actor Christoph Bantzer delivered the English narration in a slightly dry, ironic manner which suited the proceedings. The surtitles seemed to have been based on one of the singing translations of Brecht's words, which meant that they didn't always reflect exactly what was being sung.

It was refreshing to hear Weill's music being full sung and it responded to the detailed attention of the singers, revealing a degree of sophistication not always apparent in regular performances. This would not be the way that I would want to hear Die Dreigroschen Oper every day, but H K Gruber and his cast showed us a new way of listening to Weill's music. And, for once, it was lovely to hear everything actually sung.

Copyright © 16 June 2009 Robert Hugill,
London UK












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