For a 21st-century audience, the defining moment of Royal Academy Opera’s production of The Threepenny Opera comes in the second half, where the activities of the gangster Macheath are going decidedly pear-shaped, and he muses that “I think I’ll take up banking instead” – banking extorts as much money as organised crime, just with less grief for the perpetrators. When Brecht wrote the libretto, just after the crash, he was furiously, stridently raging at the moneyed classes – a rage which resonates today as powerfully as it did when the opera was written.

<i>Die Dreigroschenoper</i> © Robert Workman
Die Dreigroschenoper
© Robert Workman

Brecht expresses that rage in an outpouring of bitter sarcasm as the pillars of the community – the chief of police Brown, the “businessman” Peachum and his respectable wife – are revealed to be every bit as vile and hypocritical as Macheath and his gang of crooks and prostitutes. But he’s hilariously funny as well as bitter, and that combination is a steep challenge to young actor/singers, all the more so because Weill’s music is decidedly unconventional: a tricky interleaving of Singspiel, popular song and conventional operatic numbers, with the odd Lutheran-style chorale thrown in for good measure.

When it came to the (few) big operatic numbers, the Royal Academy’s students showed themselves perfectly capable. The highlight of the evening came from Carrie-Ann Williams as Lucy in the “Kampf um Das Eigentum”, a sort of pastiche Wagnerian recitative in the “Hell hath no fury” mould. Williams has a huge voice and gave it her all, making a minor number into a real thrill. As Jenny, Ilona Revolskaya gave us a beautiful rendering of the lyrical Salomon-Song, sweet-voiced and delicately phrased. “Pirate Jenny”, however, needs to be at the opposite end of the sweetness scale: we should be quaking in our boots by the time she signals “hop-la” for every one of our bourgeois heads to be chopped off, and while Revolskaya’s singing and acting weren’t bad, she never quite achieved that impact. Nika Gorič made a fresh-voiced, very pretty Polly and she achieved a better mix of sweetness and sardonic edge, especially in the “Barbara-Song”. Hannah Poulsom was the edgiest of the ladies, clearly relishing her role as Mrs Peachum.

Hannah Poulsom (Mrs Peachum) © Robert Workman
Hannah Poulsom (Mrs Peachum)
© Robert Workman

The leading men acted their roles and delivered their sarcastic lines with verve. But they were horribly hampered by the venue and the staging. The Old Town Hall at Shoreditch is an assembly hall, not a theatre, and designer Dorota Karolczak built a large staircase leading up to a platform and puppet-theatre-like stage, half way to the not inconsiderable height of the ceiling. Director Walter Sutcliffe used the structure to great visual effect, but he made the mistake of having people sing from the top few steps, which was fine for chorus numbers, which were excellently delivered, but decidedly not fine for solo male voices, which diminished hopelessly in volume. 

The musicians were placed to the left of the staircase, and there were serious problems of balance, both between them and the singers, and between each other – of which a blaringly loud Hawaiian guitar was the most obvious. There was plenty of decent playing, with trumpets and brass particularly strong, but conductor Gareth Hancock failed to overcome the balance problems, and also failed to inject the right degree of accenting and swing: the performance came across as rather too straightly classical. Some of the strongest numbers suffered, most notably the “Zuhälterballade”, shorn of the rush of the tango, and “Die Ballade vom angenehmen Leben”, lacking the feel of banjo-infused skiffle.

Mikhail Shepelenko (Macheath) © Robert Workman
Mikhail Shepelenko (Macheath)
© Robert Workman

These shortcomings put a big onus on the acting to carry the evening, and in this area, the cast shone. The strongest was Robert Garland as Peachum, neatly morphing between playing it straight as the hypocritical preacher, doing song-and-dance routines as a sort of music-hall comedian and being the voice of the angry Brecht preaching to the audience. Mikhail Shepelenko was a suave, nonchalant, alarmingly appealing Macheath; Michael Mofidian blustered haplessly as Brown. The several supporting roles all contributed, and all the cast were helped by well thought out, garish costumes which gave proceedings a definite scent of German expressionism. And plaudits to everyone for the excellent intelligibility of their German.

At the end of the day, this production achieves Brecht and Weill’s objective: to remind us that the hypocrisy of Big Money was alive in the 17th century of John Gay, it was thriving in the post-depression 1930s of Berlin, and it’s still in rude health today. This Dreigroschenoper provides much enjoyment along the way, as well as a stiff test for its cast and musicians which, while it may not have been passed in every aspect, has none the less revealed some promising talent.