A Neapolitan 'Threepenny Opera',
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
Die Dreigroschenoper (in English, 'The Threepenny Opera', in Italian 'L'Opera da Tre Soldi') by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, was performed for the first time on 31 August 1928 at the Berlin Schiffbauerdamm theatre. It was an immediate triumph. In the first five years, it was performed over ten thousand times in Europe and translated into eighteen languages. In 1933, it reached Broadway in an adaptation by Georg Wilhelm Pabst. It is a unique product of the Brecht-Weill collaboration: it is not a singspiel (like the Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, a true opera with spoken parts, composed for a true operatic orchestra as well as for operatic singers). It is a satirical operetta, quite abrasive with regard to the social and power structure at the time of the advance of Nazism. It requires a comparatively small orchestra able to merge American jazz (then, much in demand in Germany), Berlin cabaret and also operatic interludes. Of the twenty-three soloists on stage, only one needs to be an experienced opera singer, a soprano; it is not a major role (that of the prostitute Jenny, composed to the specification of Lotte Lenya, then married to Kurt Weill). A few of the others had songs (requiring operetta- more than opera-style voices) and all needed to act and dance very skillfully.
Enzo Turrin as Smith, a policeman, Massimo Ranieri as Macheath and Lina Sastri as Jenny in 'L'Opera da tre soldi' at Rome's Teatro Olimpico. Photo © 2012 Fabio Donato. Click on the image for higher resolution
When Die Dreigroschenoper was conceived, Brecht was known for the politically engaging plays Trommeln in der Nacht ('Drums in the night') and Im Dickicht der Städte ('In the Jungle of Cities') as well for being a columnist for a socialist (later communist) newspaper in his home town, Augsburg. He also produced and directed a very politically orientated translation of Marlowe's Edward II. Weill had studied with Ferruccio Busoni but appeared more inclined to cabaret, night club and popular music than to 'serious' composing. After the successful commission of a ballet for children, he had composed two operas well received in Berlin. In the second of the two, he had mixed Busoni-style with jazz. He was a fierce anti-Wagnerite and anti-late/post Romanticism.
Their collaboration for Die Dreigroschenoper was meant to be a German adaptation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. As much as Gay had made a parody of Handel's major work, they intended both to be politically 'incorrect' (as compared with the upper middle class theatre goers) and musically different; they innovated with unusual combinations of instruments to present the 'serious songs' in a manner influenced by the style of German night clubs. Also, Busoni's lessons but more basically Wagner's teaching (although they abhorred him and his work) were always there: in the musical numbers (26-28 according to the various versions), extreme care was taken in molding words with tonalities. Of course, this key aspect is lost in translation, even if the best musical translator is working on it. In the original Berlin Schiffbauerdamm Theatre version, the musical numbers lasted a total of some seventy-five minutes and the spoken parts about sixty minutes; a fast rhythm was an essential ingredient to the success. Today, it would be wise to perform Die Dreigroschenoper in German with surtitles. But this may not be good for the box-office. Also it would require a German company.
Massimo Ranieri as Macheath and Gaia Aprea as Polly in 'L'Opera da tre soldi' at Rome's Teatro Olimpico. Photo © 2012 Fabio Donato. Click on the image for higher resolution
This year the Brecht-Weill work is the most performed musical theatre piece in Italian theatres. A group from the Napoli Teatro Festival and the San Carlo Opera House is touring major houses, and another company is touring smaller theaters in Tuscany ... a total of some eighty performances in large and small towns. A real record -- as well as a signal of the malaise and difficulties Italy is going through both economically and politically.
L'Opera da Tre Soldi which I saw and listened to in the Teatro Olimpico of Rome on 9 February 2012 is an adaptation of Die Dreigroschenoper more than a translation for the Italian audience. It is produced by the Napoli Teatro Festival and the San Carlo Opera House. The action is moved from London in the eighteenth century to Naples -- any time after World War II -- in the middle of the trash and rubbish crisis and where just everyone (including the police) is corrupt. The black-and-white single stage sets by Fabrizio Plessi, the costumes by Giuseppe Crisolini Malatesta, the lighting by Fabrizio Fabretti and the choreography by Alessandra Panzavolta were all very effective. They recall neo-realistic movies and black-and-white television plays. Less effective were the dramaturgy and the stage direction (Luca De Fusco). Perhaps because it was thought that 1928 political satire may no longer bite, the spoken text has been expanded to also include recent political innuendos (with reference to current Italian politics). This makes for a three hour show with a loss of rhythm (and of the attention of the more musically skilled audience members), especially in the second part. The overall result is better than some other productions in the last few years, such as the version presented by the Bologna Opera House where Peachum and his lot spoke Neapolitan dialect and Mrs Peachum strict Bolognese slang, while most of the others used 'television Italian'.
Massimo Ranieri as Macheath and Lina Sastri as Jenny in 'L'Opera da tre soldi' at Rome's Teatro Olimpico. Photo © 2012 Fabio Donato. Click on the image for higher resolution
The applause was well deserved by the young ensemble Parco della Musica Jazz Orchestra and their conductor Francesco Lanzilotta; whilst the stage action was quite distant from Die Dreigroschenoper, they had the right touch to evoke Berlin in 1928 and to merge jazz, cabaret and a bit of opera.
The main fellow was Massimo Ranieri in the role of Macheath. He is a well known Italian singer and actor well known both one the stage and in films. He has had a long career and is now sixty-seven. He is amazing as actor, singer and even acrobat for three hours when he is almost always on stage; with aging, his voice is darker than it used to be, but it fits the role effectively. Polly and Lucy, his two wives, are Gaia Aprea and Angela De Matteo, two experienced operetta singers. Jenny the prostitute is Lina Sastri; the role was written to the specifics of Lotte Lenya, a true soprano and a great actress. Ms Sastri has been for years a leading singer of Neapolitan songs, which is quite different to German soprano cabaret singing composed to make fun of late-Romantic opera arias. All the other performers were pretty good.
Massimo Ranieri as Macheath in 'L'Opera da tre soldi' at Rome's Teatro Olimpico. Photo © 2012 Fabio Donato. Click on the image for higher resolution
The enthusiastic audience was enthralled by Ranieri and applauded the show open stage and at curtain calls. To over ninety per cent of them, it did not quite matter that L'Opera da Tre Soldi they had enjoyed was not Die Dreigroschenoper. Maybe Die Dreigroschenoper (with surtitles) would have bored them to death.
The next stops of this L'Opera da Tre Soldi are La Fenice in Venice and the Dante Alighieri theatre in Ravenna.
Copyright © 13 February 2012 Giuseppe Pennisi,
<< M&V home Concert reviews J S Bach >>