‘Oh the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear’
The ‘opera for beggers’ brings its bawdy humor and wit to Boston
The Threepenny Opera
Produced by Boston Lyric Opera
Music by Kurt Weill
Libretto by Bertolt Brecht
English translation by Michael Feingold
Huntington Avenue Theater
Playing through March 25
For those who have never heard of The Threepenny Opera, you are in for a treat. Think of a modern raunchy rom-com, or every time a novel was censored for mature content, or go to the past and think of Voltaire’s Candide. And now think about opera, the soprano’s voice echoing through the hall, the audience’s impeccable suits and dresses, and the richness of the orchestral music. Put the two together, plus an overt confrontation against capitalism, and we have The Threepenny Opera, named so for its irony: a cheap “opera” that could be attended by poor beggars and a play with music that champions the poor, that offers snide remarks at justice, or the lack thereof.
This opera has an interesting history. An English opera by John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera from 1728 was translated into German by Elisabeth Hauptmann, and then adapted into a German opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Now, the Boston Lyric Opera has returned the opera to its home; we hear the English translation by Michael Feingold, and rightly so, being set in Victorian London, where the division between rich and poor could only increase.
Bobby Darin’s hit song “Mack the Knife” in the 1950s originates from this character, the smooth-talking, womanizing criminal named Macheath (Christopher Burchett), known as Mack the Knife, the most notorious criminal in London. Chief of Police Tiger Brown (Daniel Belcher) was a former military friend of Macheath, having fought in the colonial wars together — I recall the television show Peaky Blinders here — and now, Mack still has Brown’s loyalty. Consequently, Macheath has never been brought to justice. The crux of the opera is the irony of murderer and rapist Macheath getting away with his crimes, while the poor keep begging, but it never amounts to anything.
The upbeat yet tense music score with David Angus’s conducting and the female operatic singers was superb. Our lead, Polly Peachum (Kelly Kaduce), or as she insists, the wife of Macheath, is played by Kaduce with overt playfulness. Her nasally, affronted, childish voice is so amusing that when Kaduce does open her mouth to sing for Macheath’s criminal friends, the audience is left captivated at the contrast. Naturally, Polly’s parents are displeased by her choice of husband and take it upon themselves to get Macheath arrested despite his connections. This is not a fight between the civilized versus a criminal, but a battle amongst the scavengers of the underground. Polly’s parents, Celia (Michelle Trainor) and Jonathan Peachum (James Maddalena), run the business of managing London’s beggars, controlling where and how they can beg. Celia and her cackling laughter is delightfully entertaining as she bribes prostitutes who meet with Macheath to find his location. Jonathan’s wit sets him against Macheath in various scenes, particularly the end as Jonathan controls the beggars and sets them upon Macheath in prison. Meanwhile, Lucy Brown (Chelsea Basler), daughter of Tiger Brown, is another of Macheath’s seduced lovers. Basler’s Lucy is played with amusing haughtiness, maintains that she is Macheath’s wife, and is at odds with Polly, the recently “wedded.”
In 1928, this production was indubitably shocking, both for its crass, bawdy humor, and its politics. Even today, in a liberal bubble, the sexism in some of the characters still feels a bit jarring. We must be clear: this features sexist characters, particularly Macheath who rapes and seduces women, but the opera itself is not, by essence, sexist. Macheath’s guilt is clear. We witness the derision of women by Macheath and his gang of crooks, a horde of female prostitutes, Macheath having multiple lovers despite a monogamous relationship, and a demonstration of Polly Peachum’s sexuality to her parents. This all fits neatly into this microcosm of London’s underbelly. The humor is akin to that of Candide: the characters go so quickly through horror that the sudden realization of what happened is felt as a whiplash; this is the cause of discomfort, not just the grim material.
I heard audience members behind me acknowledging that this “was a dark story.” But I hear that term thrown around often. I did not find this dark. I found it lighthearted, a parody, and in some regard, a bastardization, of the highbrow art of opera; this has hints of opera, but it feels more like a musical. The ending, which I won’t spoil, could be a cheap copout to some, acknowledges that Brecht and Weill treated their criticism of capitalism seriously but snidely turned their noses at a choice of art form (i.e. an opera). Some things are too pat to be real, but the poverty of London holds true for its time. This opera is wily, playful, and raunchy not because it can be, but because it must be.