Indianapolis Opera began its 2013-14 season by staging the staunchest anti-opera in the operatic canon, “The Threepenny Opera.” The enduring collaboration of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, despite a difficult gestation, gave a 20th-century twist to the view from the bottom of English society from which John Gay had written “The Beggar’s Opera” two centuries earlier. It was meant to be vernacular in the coarsest way, both musically and textually.
As designed by Gordon Strain, the Basile Opera Center production has a severe industrial look — symmetrically designed metal scaffolding with opposing stairways, the whole marked off geometrically with bars and railings. Most of the action takes place in the foreground, where the “alienation effect” of addressing the audience with narration or commentary is thrown in. Tight, circumscribed spots on solo singers from time to time blend the world of stage illusion with cabaret entertainment in Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein’s lighting design.
Director Bill Fabris’ concept is that this is a troupe of German players presenting its jaded Weimar Republic view of London squalor and low ambitions on the eve of Queen Victoria’s coronation nearly 100 years before. The company shares the lines of “Mack the Knife” to set the sordid scene. In times of great uncertainty, the view from the gutter seems to have a heightened clarity, even a kind of rough wisdom. Corruption and double-dealing are the way of the world, as illustrated by the story of the dissolute highwayman Macheath and the attempt of the “beggar king” Peachumto do him in for the effrontery of luring his daughter Polly into a questionable marriage.
Seen at Sunday’s matinee, the Indianapolis Opera production maintained a brittle intensity, lit by sardonic humor even as the story of cunning and betrayal also mirrors the characters’ desperation and yearning for a better life. Brecht’s text and Weill’s songs from the start made hit entertainment out of the most cynical interpretation of human motives in modern times, and they are well represented in Michael Feingold’s translation.
|Mr. and Mrs. Peachum ruefully contemplate the allure of the moon over Soho.|
As Macheath, Corey McKern is a dashing baritone who was highly effective as the lowlife ruler of a criminal gang, kept active thanks to Macheath’s friendship with the sheriff, Tiger Brown. If the impeccably dressed McKern was almost too suave, it worked to show how firmly the gang leader keeps the cordial mask in place to hide his sinister self. He was equally credible recalling with Tiger Brown the bloodthirsty camaraderie of soldiering in India (“The Cannon Song”) and in his smooth romancing of the naïve Polly in the love duet that follows. Later on, his “Ballad of Living in Style” conveyed the unshakability of Macheath’s self-confidence even behind bars.
Kern’s vigorous vocal and dramatic profile needed the kind of nemesis presented by the singers playing the Peachums and their useful ally Jenny Diver, one of Macheath’s mostly discarded trollops. That formidable opposition is superb in this production. Robert Kerr stoutly portrayed Jonathan Peachum in all respects — the wry moralist perched on the top of a begging business that prospers by fiercely defending its territory and playing on the guilty consciences of the well-to-do.
The rightness of his pairing with Janara Kellerman as Mrs. Peachum is immediately apparent in the way they performed the “Why Can’t They” song, lamenting the impossibility of responsible parenthood when “the moon over Soho” holds forth the illusion of happiness to the younger generation. Both Kerr and Kellerman never failed to project the words well, even when the well-honed band offstage (conducted by James Caraher) became boisterous. And they unfailingly sounded like they could be lower-class denizens of Soho.
Which brings up a persistent difficulty in the performance I saw: the bothersome inconsistency of accents. For example: When Macheath’s gang (their interplay was adeptly brought off) was trying to explain things to the boss, deal with his many adversaries or react to his predicaments, only Crooked-Finger Jack (Andrew Morales) displayed a passable Cockney accent.
Some of the main characters went in and out of American speech. This was quite disconcerting in Rachel Sparrow’s otherwise winning Polly Peachum, but particularly conspicuous when McKern, with his abundance of lines in song and speech, couldn’t sustain the English accent. A dialect coach should have been added to the production team, because otherwise it looked as if Fabris left it up to the players to manage London street talk as each saw fit.
As Jenny Diver, Caitlin Mathes was often capable of sounding like a Cockney wench, but fell under the influence of some broad American accents in the second act. Quite admirable, however, was her dead-on ferocity and a stance that indicated Jenny could have been a natural leader if not for the life of whoredom she fell into. Her showpiece, “Pirate Jenny,” was bone-chilling, and the “Solomon Song” indicated vividly that Jenny, like Peachum, was capable of taking the long view of human frailty.
Jacqueline Brecheen’s Lucy Brown — the other current claimant to Macheath’s wandering affections — was manipulative and skilled at usually keeping her victimhood at bay, but both she and Sparrow’s Polly seemed a bit overmatched by the rapid patter of “The Jealousy Duet.”