Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, the satirical opera that Kurt Weill composed to a libretto by Bertolt Brecht and premiered in 1930, is as much a satire on traditional opera as it is on the Weimar Republic in whose midst it was written. Pulling, as it does, on various musical genres of the Thirties – jazz, ragtime and feel-good tunes one can easily commit to memory – it has enjoyed a degree of popularity as an acidic reflection of a time gone by. Yet for all its exaggerated bravado, stereotypical figures and constant musical feed, many would argue that Sebastian Baumgarten’s new production in Zurich just as nicely reflects the manner of all things modern.

Christopher Ventris (Paul Ackermann) © Tanja Dorendorf
Christopher Ventris (Paul Ackermann)
© Tanja Dorendorf

The curtain opened to 1930s-period video projection behind a gang-like chain dance. A ragged crew of female shaman figures, some in buffalo-horned headdresses, paraded to the familiar song, Show Me the Way to the next Whisky Bar. It was an auspicious beginning, and Chris Kondek’s video work was to remain an original and fascinating stage highlight throughout. Brecht directed that a short summary of any scene coming should always be given to the audience. Here in Zurich, those words were also projected in the form of titles. The rest of the rather anonymous set resembled a tired road-stand restaurant and bar in a pseudo-Wild West setting.

In the first scene, a triad of fugitives have decided to found a new city. Willy and Trinity Moses (the excellent Michael Laurenz and Christopher Purves) describe the delights of exploitation along with the wily female entrepreneur, Leokadja Begbick, sung by Karita Mattila. Like her two male companions, Begbick sports the trumpery of neon-colored and decorative cowboy gear; in her case, hot pink Jodhpurs, jacket, boots and Western hat, as if straight from a rodeo. While the costume and its fixings were shrill, I’d have liked Mattila’s Begbick to have been more conniving, more outrageously ruthless. Instead, she played the role like something of a hot-headed granny; and in several instances, the orchestra overpowered her voice.

Karita Mattila (Leokadia Begbick) © Tanja Dorendorf
Karita Mattila (Leokadia Begbick)
© Tanja Dorendorf

Her character does, however, set up a busy whorehouse, most of whose girls wear elaborate “famous female figure” costumes that could double on an MGM set for a busty Brünhilde or a devil in disguise. Annette Dasch sang the role of the lead prostitute Jenny Hill, whose voice in Act 1 somehow stayed in the same timbre whatever the lyric. Love being a commodity in the city of Mahagonny, the sexual antics Jenny gave us from the start were, however, convincing enough to chase two young girls sitting near me with their parents away at the interval. Remarkable, since in Acts 2 and 3, Jenny unwound excesses that made even the old boys in our audience blush. Interestingly though, with her promiscuity gauge rising, Jenny’s voice also grew noticeably wider in dimension and nuance.

Annette Dasch (Jenny Hill) © Tanja Dorendorf
Annette Dasch (Jenny Hill)
© Tanja Dorendorf

Tenor Christopher Ventris sang the rugged lumberjack Paul Ackermann with confidence and conviction. His silvery tone around lyrics at his simply-staged trial were as heart-breaking as they were perfectly paced. Being totally broke, however, he was the victim of parties who contended that “in the whole human race, there is no greater criminal than a man without money”. He is executed in the end, but shares a death on stage with his old pal, Alaska Joe. As directed, Ruben Drole made a delightfully silly, naïve fighter in the fatal boxing scene, but sang hitherto with a voice that showed off his rich bass-baritone famously.

The opera choir, under Janko Kastelic’s direction, also deserves accolades. Despite the stage-wide video screen readily moving up and down, and the great conundrum around them, the singers stayed wholly centered vocally. Their “Oh, fearful storm” chorus rose up like a true hurricane itself, and near the end, the some fifty voices nicely underscored the lyric, “the fiercest storm is man”. The choir, too, first touted “Du darfst” (You may), the mantra which Brecht applied here to all the depravities: whether that be over-eating (and the grisly death and graphic spilling of anatomical parts in this production); or the speediest and most loveless of conjugal unions; the most senseless physical combat; or the horrors of alcohol abuse. What’s more, the Philharmonia Zürich orchestra under conductor Fabio Luisi plied us with all kinds of Weill’s rhythmic tunes, some of which were categorically foot-tapping material.