James Conlon

Weill: Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny [DVD Video]

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Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is a difficult piece of theater to effectively pull off because both Brecht's text and Weill's music are so drenched in irony that it has the effect of emotionally distancing audiences from the action on-stage. The authors' stated intent, in fact, was to create a work that broke so completely with the traditions of opera that it would provoke audiences to think more than to feel. Any production, then, needs to be evaluated not primarily in terms of its emotional impact, but in its success at getting the audience to think, and that's a tricky proposition given the inherent emotional charge of music and drama, particularly when they're joined together. The performance by the Los Angeles Opera achieves mixed results in its 2007 production of the opera. The production values are high throughout, and for the most part it's a visually powerful show. The set, by Mark Bailey, is often arresting, and its odd juxtapositions are indeed thought-provoking. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes are vivid and diverse and contribute significantly to the striking visuals. Director John Doyle is most effective in scenes that involve intimate human interaction, such as the first encounter between Jimmy McIntyre and Jenny Smith, and in the stylized crowd scenes, but an awful lot of time is given to the performers just standing still and singing straight to the audience. The performers who make the strongest dramatic impact are, not surprisingly, Patti LuPone and Audra MacDonald, experienced stage actors whose mere presence is riveting; they inhabit their characters so imaginatively and naturally that whenever they're on-stage it's impossible to take your eyes off them. In spite of many memorable moments, the production team's lack of a coherent perspective on the problematic work ultimately leaves the viewer perplexed. The finale, which is indeed supposed to be powerfully chaotic, simply comes across as confusing and aimless; there's no way of making any sense of it without having read a synopsis beforehand.

The musical performances, though, are uniformly splendid; this may actually be the rare opera that makes its strongest impact as a purely aural experience, and perhaps the piece would have been better served if it had been released as a CD rather than a DVD. MacDonald's warm and sensuous soprano is perfect for Weill, and everything she sings here has a gleaming clarity. Tenor Antony Dean Griffey is dramatically ineffectual on-stage, but his singing is fabulous: full and powerful and passionately felt. LuPone makes an indelible impression; this is a singing actor who knows how to use her voice to etch an unforgettable character. The supporting cast -- Robert Wörle, Donnie Ray Albert, John Easterlin, Mel Ulrich, and Steven Humes -- are all very fine. The Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus perform with ferocious vitality under James Conlon's energetic direction.