With its season – like many seasons around the world – canceled this year, New York’s City Lyric Opera made the bold decision that some, but not all, companies have risked and moved online. The live-streamed production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera suffered from its own ambitions, resulting in an uneven and overly busy show. Divided into two parts over two nights, the production was scheduled to run from the 29th October through to the 15th November, but technical problems forced them to cancel the opening weekend.

Justin Austin (Macheath) and Philip Kalmanovitch (Peachum)
© City Lyric Opera

Part one (reviewed on 5th November) opened with the resplendent baritone of Justin Austin singing to the camera in front of the familiar blank background of a streamed performance. The camera zoomed out to reveal Austin, still singing, displaying a phone screen with the first image playing. We zoomed out again to see the scene now displayed on a laptop screen, held by him. The recursion was seamless, seeming much simpler than it actually was. The inventiveness of the scene (with credit to director Attilio Rigotti and photography director Orsolya Szánthó) and the warm voice given Macheath suggested at the outset the high points of the production. All points would not prove so high.

Justin Austin (Macheath) and Shanelle Woods (Jenny)
© Irene Mercadal

Performers were, for the most part, in separate parts of Manhattan’s HERE Arts Center, and interacted via split screen, with greatly varying, and occasionally failing, audio quality. Tickets were sold at two levels; upper tier audience members were able to participate in scripted ways and were shown onscreen in a mesh of small windows that generally only proved a distraction. It all made for a frustratingly busy onscreen scene. 

Still, when it was good, it was good. The orchestra was on point and the settings were stylish (two things to be expected from anything with music director Whitney George’s name on it). Austin and Michael Parham’s Cannon Song was riveting and the climactic Grave Inscription was worthy of a late album by eccentric pop star Scott Walker. Sara LaFlamme (Polly) and Shanelle Woods (Jenny) also turned in strong performances. 

Justin Austin (Macheath)
© Irene Mercadal

The current moment of streamed performances feels, perhaps, like the early days of television: much is to be forgiven in what is, to some extent, a new medium. And, indeed, the only way it will get better is for people to keep doing it. Eventually, theaters will reopen, but this new medium will be here to stay. We’ll have ambitious producers and directors to thank for the risks they’re taking now. 

This performance was reviewed from the City Lyric Opera video stream