Oct 6, 2011

"Threepenny" Wilsonia

The opera composer Nico Muhly recently half-joked to me that he'd like to see all Broadway musicals directed by Robert Wilson, imagining how much Phantom of the Opera, for instance, might be improved (at least in the lighting department).

I'm wondering if he would say the same if he'd seen Wilson's Threepenny Opera, which I caught at BAM last night (it's there for a few more). I haven't seen any of Wilson's opera productions, but I can imagine how his slow-moving, often breathtaking stage-pictorial style, which generates an undeniable, otherworldly force field on the stage, might click with larger-scale musical forms like those of Glass or Wagner. With scores that alternate songs with book scenes, as did his Woyzeck (which I did see, and didn't like) and this Threepenny, Wilson seems at a loss, grabbing at any number of approaches with only intermittent success:

  • Commedia lazzi abetted by absurdly loud sound effects, which at many points compete with the pit band in less-than-euphonious counterpoint;
  • Silent-film play-acting, including one well-executed if pointless Chaplinesque chase sequence, but elsewhere a lot of sub-Shockheaded Peter mugging;
  • Tableaux, like the haunting, inexplicable longeuer at the opening of the Turnbridge scene, in which an old whore with orange hair (Ruth Glöss) reads untranslated from a scroll while silhouettes of her younger colleagues vogue around her under a clutch of hanging lamps and a faint, distinctly un-Weillian piece of atmospheric music repeats a two-note interval dozens of times.

This last bit (and to some extent the Chaplin chase) felt to me like the liveliest things Wilson put onstage, and tellingly, these are two of the many, many moments in the show that have nothing to do with either Brecht or Weill. Whatever the merits of Wilson's unique theater vision, I have to say that it feels frustratingly unmoored from actual dramaturgy; the moments that work here seem to do so almost randomly.

It must also be said, with regret, that this Berliner Ensemble cast, though they'd probably be interesting to watch doing a Brecht play, proves itself largely beneath the challenges of Weill's score, which is trickier than it may sound (the "Jealousy Duet" in particular is a train wreck, and there's a lot more out-of-tempo sprechstimme than seems entirely necessary). And while the pit band is generally strong, where are the drums? From where I sat, it looked like Stefan Rager was conducting with his seldom-used timpani mallets, but if memory serves, there should be a kit kicking this score along.

There were two exceptions to my general musical disappointment: Angela Winkler's ecstatic "Solomon Song," delivered in one near show's end, had a kind of batty beauty about it, and Stefan Kurt's executive-tranvestite Macheath, though a vocal mixed bag for some of his numbers, really stepped up in the full-chorus numbers ("What Keeps Mankind Alive" and the finale).

As did Wilson, somehow. Though I cannot count this Threepenny a success, I found that by the two-hour mark I had more or less settled into/resigned myself to the irregular Wilson pulse (his shows do seem to change ours, at least), and these full-chorus numbers had an iconic charge about them, however weak. Particularly the finale: There was the gallows centerstage, and the mock-Handel chorale ringing through the theatre in German, and the prostitutes made up in a striking simulacrum of a classic Lenya look. This was almost enough to link this entire evening of oddball Wilsonia to Brecht and Weill's masterpiece. I guess the best construction I can put on my feelings about the whole affair is that this Threepenny represents Wilson in dialogue with Brecht and Weill, but that the voice heard loudest throughout is Wilson's.

UPDATE: Brantley heard it differently. For him, the non-Broadway approach to the vocals was bracing. I agree in principle that this music shouldn't be pretty, per se, and that many if not most American singers don't get this. But this production mostly errs too far on the other side of the ledger; at times I could palpably feel the performers straining to land the downbeats, let alone their pitches. A little of that Brechtian bark goes a long way. UPDATE 2: Elisabeth Vincentelli loves it, comparing the long-overdue debut of the Berliner Ensemble to "the Rolling Stones are just making their New York debut after decades of playing Europe." Seeing a once-great band in its dotage? I'm afraid the comparison is all too apt. UPDATE 3: I'm obviously an outlier here, as David Sheward more or less loves it, too.

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