Punk, Communist Opera to Burn Your Daddy’s Ears: The Threepenny Opera

The Threepenny Opera from Boston Lyric Opera on Vimeo.

Presented by Boston Lyric Opera
Music by Kurt Weill
Libretto by Bertolt Brecht
English translation by Michael Feingold
Original German text based on Elisabeth Hauptmann’s German Translation of John Gay’s
The Beggar’s Opera
Conducted by David Angus
Stage directed by James Darrah

March 16 – 25, 2018
Huntington Avenue Theatre
264 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA
BLO on Facebook

Review by Kitty Drexel

(Boston, MA) 3Penny is not your Daddy’s stodgy traditional opera. Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht were communist rabble rousers hell-bent on challenging the operatic form. They were freedom fighters rebelling against the Nazis through theatre. A stalwart Marxist, Brecht wanted to destroy opera’s association with the bourgeoisie. Weill believed opera could belong to the proletariat if given the opportunity. Both would have appreciated the BLO’s production of The Threepenny Opera. Opera purists would not.    

The Threepenny Opera’s plot is HERE. To sum up, Mr. Peachum (James Maddalena) is deeply angered when Macheath (Christopher Burchett) marries Polly Peachum (Kelly Kaduce). He’s angry not because Polly is an innocent but because he’s made no money from a business transaction. Mrs. Peachum (Michelle Trainor) sets like a terrier to permanently remove Macheath. There are empowered sex workers, corrupt civil servants, and representatives for the average guy. They’re the humanity that capitalism made.

Quite a few patrons left at intermission. Feingold’s wordy libretto leaves little to the imagination. It is dark and gloriously raunchy. Darrah’s staging is bold and required his vocalists to move in ways that would have horrified my conservatory opera coach. Even the park and bark bits demanded untraditionally physical expression. “Liebesleid” is performed mid-coitus behind a divided curtain. If the lyrics didn’t upset the audience’s prudes, this would have.

Weill’s score incorporates jazz elements. History tells us that he intended his music to be sung as songs by everyone. He wrote for Lotte Lenya after all. Opera happened to be his medium. Conductor and music director Angus swept through the music with a focused baton. His orchestra ensemble responded with great attention. Angus and rehearsal coach Brett Hogdon shaped the vocalists interpretations very well. In particular, “Pirate Jenny” (Seeräuberjenny) as sung by Kaduce stirs the bile pleasantly.

Costuming was exquisite. Frankly, I’d wear Jenny’s dress daily. The wig and makeup design was as well. Polly was a kabuki Cindy Lauper. Mrs. Peachum was Roseanne Barr meets Mimi from The Drew Carey Show. Burchett could be Brecht’s grandson; in costume, Burchett’s similarity is unnerving.  

John Conklin’s dramaturgy work on this production is very good. The program notes and insert were helpful (especially if one assumed they were viewing something more tame). The online articles written for this production are worth a read whether you caught the run or not. If you enjoy 3Penny you may also enjoy this Pamela Katz’s The Partnership which explores the relationship between Weill, Brecht, and Lotte Lenya as well as actress/Brecht’s baby-Momma Helene Weigel and Brecht’s workhorse Elisabeth Hauptmann. Buying the book “used” helps small businesses.

The production wasn’t perfection. Performers sang and spoke upstage. Some of this was devised and some of it was sloppy practice. We could tell the difference between because the devised shouting was intelligible. The ensemble members were listless when not given specific staging. Not in a Brechtian alienation way, but in a way revealing inexperience with improv. Lucy and Polly’s cat fight duet in Act 2 lacked energy, and the staging was stilted. Vocally, it was a delight. BLO should seriously consider releasing a cast recording. 

Visually impaired ticket buyers beware: the BLO website is not fully accessible and may cause some confusion with its “fanciness.” The parking and direction page brings you immediately to a shifty Google map. The drop down box for more information is finicky.

The Huntington Theatre is not fully accessible. There is no elevator access in the space. Patrons with mobility issues or wheelchairs must purchase a ground floor seat. Listening devices are available at concessions. This production was in English; subtitles were not used. It is uncertain if audio description was available.

Honestly, I was expecting to dislike this production. I am so, so happy to be wrong. 3Penny is a tribute to what opera isn’t and it’s BEAUTIFUL. This is opera’s future. If opera companies want to keep their patrons, they will need to be entertaining in ways similar to other theatre. BLO’s The Threepenny Opera shouldn’t be unique in its attack. God willing, BLO will retain some of its provocation when it produces The Barber of Seville yet again next season.

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