"When you look at what's happened to the country over the past five or six years, Mahagonny's the perfect piece to show what happens when you construct a place on lust, greed and corruption. It's actually destroyed itself". David Brophy is talking about Ireland, the EU bail-out that it went cap in hand for when the Celtic Tiger crashed and burned four years ago, and the economic evisceration still afflicting the country despite the Irish finally exiting their “financial assistance programme” last Christmas.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny © Opera Theatre Company
The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
© Opera Theatre Company

Watching Brophy, himself a Dubliner, conduct Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, it’s clear he feels the opera’s message deeply. Perched above floor level in the stage-right stalls area of the Olympia Theatre, half of whose seating was stripped out to accommodate the orchestra, he’s a galvanising presence, swivelling constantly to cue choral entries, make eye contact with singers, and keep a weather eye on what is happening on stage and in the auditorium around him.

He needs to, as the points of focus in director Lynne Parker’s conception of the piece are constantly shifting. One moment the eye and ear are fixed on soprano Claudia Boyle’s louchely slow-burn “Alabama Song”, the next they’re slipping sideways to register the creeping presence in the aisleways of her half-a-dozen “co-workers”, whose eerily disembodied rendition of the refrain swirls and insinuates as the singers glide among the audience.

Weill’s choral writing, of which there’s much in Mahagonny, is splendidly effective under Brophy’s incisive supervision, its claustrophobically narrow intervals and leavenings of atonality fully assimilated by the team of 21 support singers, and projected with confidence and just tuning.

The core soloists are also strongly cast. They’re spearheaded by the ardent Jimmy Mahoney of tenor Julian Hubbard, whose fast vibrato suits the restless, febrile impulses driving the character forward in the dog-eat-dog environment which surrounds him. His execution, hung aloft on a crucifix of scaffold poles for 20 minutes, is the production’s most visually arresting image, reminiscent of Peter Sellars’ famous “lethal injection” moment in Handel’s Theodora at Glyndebourne.

Much of the rest of the production is sparsely accoutred, with a minimum of props and no fixed scenery. That’s partly because the portion of the stalls audience displaced by the orchestra’s relocation is seated onstage, on raked risers. It’s a tactic which plays cleverly to Brechtian concepts of anti-theatre and “alienation”, and also happens to enhance the impression that we are somehow all complicit in what is unwinding around us, in Brecht’s unforgiving, grimly rapacious scenario.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny © Opera Theatre Company
The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
© Opera Theatre Company

There’s further evidence of Lynne Parker’s Brechtian credentials in her numbingly objectivised direction of the Act II duet between Jenny and Jimmy, where the couple circle one another mechanistically, acknowledging a kind of love between them, but knowing also they are chained to circumstance, and ultimately fated to obey the ruthlessly self-preserving instincts needed in the pleasure-worshipping urban jungle that is Mahagonny.

The fruity mezzo of Anne Marie Gibbons makes such a punchy impact as the opportunistic Begbick that you regret the character progressively fading from the libretto as the plot develops. Abetting her, bass-baritone John Molloy makes a reptilian Trinity Moses, bringing a suitably hard, impassive weight of tone to bear as he calls death on Jimmy’s head in Act II’s drinking scene, and improvising a splendidly unrepeatable, sotto voce Dublin profanity (clearly audible from the front stalls area) as he limbered up for his boxing match with Julian Tovey’s Alaska Wolf Joe.

Supporting parts were very capably taken. Eamonn Mulhall’s comic turn as Jakob Schmidt, eating himself grinningly to death on a hospital gurney, caught the eye particularly, while Christopher Cull’s firmly sung Bank Account Billy was full of character and promise for the future. The widely experienced actor Darragh Kelly fills the part of Narrator, expertly locating the fine line between clinical objectivity and cruel cynicism so crucial to Brechtian theatre, and deftly treading it. “Such is the respect for money in our time,” he intones, as Jimmy is condemned to death for owing a relatively small sum of money. It’s the evening’s most chilling moment, and it’s certain its significance was not lost on the Olympia audience.

It’s possible that the impact of this excellent, thought-provoking Mahagonny – just the second professional staging ever in Ireland, it seems, Wexford in 1985 being the first – depended to some extent on where you were sitting in the unconventionally laid-out theatre, and how that affected your visual and aural experience. From where I sat, however, it seemed like an epoch-making initiative – money from the Sky Arts Ignition programme, topped up by the embattled Irish Arts Council, enabling the collaboration between Opera Theatre Company and Rough Magic Theatre Company in a work which neither could possibly have produced to the same standard independently.

It’s another clear sign, in a month when the general manager of New York’s Metropolitan opera house – arguably the world’s most powerful – declared his organisation to be approaching “the edge of the precipice” financially, that collaboration is the future of international opera. This Dublin-sourced Mahagonny was triumphantly collaborative, and artistically did Brecht-Weill’s cuttingly relevant work ample justice.

****1