If Wagner used ancient myth to convey his political and philosophical ideas, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht created their own contemporary mythology in their collaborations to comparable ends and with just as timeless an effect. In Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (“Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”), the success of a capitalist beacon of a settlement breeds its own demise through excess, greed and corruption. Law is administered by criminals, its God tells the populace to go to hell rather than save them, and love is traded like any other commodity. With its subversion of dramatic expectations, it’s as much a satire on opera itself as on the fragile interwar world of the Weimar Republic, but in both realms it seems to gain ever more relevance to the globalised world in which we find ourselves today.

Uwe Eikötter (Jacky O'Brien)
© Hans Jörg Michel

For his new production at Nationaltheater Mannheim, Markus Dietz hasn’t felt the need to create a defined milieu for the opera: his setting, with designs by Ines Nadler and Henrike Bromber, is fairly abstract, with a giant “M” dominating the stage and the revolve and stage risers used to good effect in marshalling the large cast around the stage. Proceedings begin with a film, projected onto the safety curtain, in which we see the car chase and shoot-out that lead our three anti-heroes, Begbick, Fatty and Trinity Moses, to run away and found their pleasure city away from the eyes of the law. Subsequently, and with a large chorus often on the move around the full stage area, the narrative sometimes becomes a bit blurred, and one misses the establishment of the four Alaskan lumberjacks as the focus of the story, until we witness their successive demises.

Vera-Lotte Böcker (Jenny Smith)
© Hans Jörg Michel

There are some good visual jokes, such as Jacky O’Brien’s inflatable costume as the supposed “personal trainer” eats himself into oblivion, the boxing bout between Alaskawolf-Joe and Moses and the fun use of an autonomous piano for the “Maiden’s Prayer” interpolation. But there’s also pathos in the portrayal of Jim Mahoney’s relationship with Jenny and his eventual debagging, humiliation and death. There is even an updating of Brecht’s famous alienation effect, with the denouement accompanied by live video of the Narrator surveying the scene backstage and with the cameraman finally panning his lens over the audience, projecting the image of ourselves back to us.

In all, it’s an impressive piece of theatre and a true company achievement. With the exception of actress Anne Diemer’s Narrator, the entire cast is drawn from Mannheim’s resident ensemble, proving both the benefits of the ensemble system and that one doesn’t need established stars for a successful performance of the work. As Widow Begbick, the house’s resident Kundry Heike Wessels held her own in a role often reserved for retired Wagnerians, and Raphael Wittmer’s Fatty and Thomas Jesatko’s Moses were effective sidekicks. The quartet of lumberjacks on the prowl was led by Will Hartmann’s engaging Jimmy, who brought some of the most communicative singing of the evening. Vera-Lotte Böcker’s Jenny was a little diffuse in projection, but she sang a suave “Alabama Song”. The chorus, which had begun the evening a little tentatively, grew in confidence as the evening progressed and the final expression of the Mahagonnians’ helplessness was searing in its intensity. From the pit, Benjamin Reiners, Mannheim’s deputy music director, led an account of the score that was as impressive for its full-orchestral richness as for its energy and verve.

The Nationaltheater Mannheim Chorus
© Hans Jörg Michel