Review: Ivo van Hove’s ‘Mahagonny’ Does Justice to Brecht and Weill

Review: Ivo van Hove’s ‘Mahagonny’ Does Justice to Brecht and Weill

His use of video — a camera crew follows the cast around, sometimes showing action in the wings that couldn’t otherwise be seen by the audience — is a reflection of our contemporary lives, with historic moments and meaningless minutiae filmed and shared in real time. In the language of Brechtian theater, it’s also a modern tool of alienation, a reminder that the audience shouldn’t lose itself in the narrative, and that the world “Mahagonny” satirizes is very much our own 21st-century reality.

The video screen is also where Mr. van Hove presents the titles of each scene, matter-of-fact phrases like “The city of Mahagonny is founded” and “The execution of Jimmy Mahoney.” These were an indispensable feature of Weill and Brecht’s original production, designed by Caspar Neher; they are sometimes excluded by directors today, but I don’t see how the opera fully functions without them.

But Mr. van Hove isn’t overly faithful, either. Among his interventions is the treatment of the female characters, here more empowered than ever — especially Begbick, one of the founders of Mahagonny (the soprano Karita Mattila, towering in both musicality and sheer presence), and the prostitutes, led by a charismatic yet chilly Annette Dasch as Jenny Hill. And Mr. van Hove sets the opera in a film studio, not to make it a backstage drama, but to suggest that Mahagonny is a fantasy or mirage, always too good to be true.

The production opens with the stage nearly empty, with only a scaffold holding up the video screen. From there, Mahagonny is built from the ground up, with dressing room mirrors, craft services, and, eventually, enormous green screens. Begbick — and her two scummy colleagues, Fatty (Alan Oke) and Moses (Willard White) — establish the city as, she says, a “spider web” that attracts the working-class masses, including four lumberjacks from Alaska.

One of them, Jimmy Mahoney (the tenor Nikolai Schukoff, persuasively anguished in his big Act III aria, “Wenn der Himmel hell wird”), falls for the prostitute Jenny, their first love scene here rendered onscreen as a grainy black-and-white melodrama out of old Hollywood. But he’s also unhappy in Mahagonny, and, after a crisis of faith and the threat of a hurricane, leads the people of the city to a new way of life: one based on absolute freedom, and absolute pleasure.

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