From the first moments of Nationaltheater Mannheim’s Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, it’s clear that we’re in for a good time. The sequins of the narrator’s blazer glitter as she steps onto the stage. Then the music begins, and conductor Benjamin Reiners’ deep love for Weill’s score is immediately apparent. As the overture plays, we see a police chase scene that moves from video projection (that must have been fun for the singers to film!) seamlessly into the theatre.

Thomas Jesatko (Trinity Moses) © Hans Jörg Michel
Thomas Jesatko (Trinity Moses)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Once Leokadja Begbick shoots the final police officer, the criminal trio (Begbick, Fatty and Moses) agree to form the city of Mahagonny to take advantage of rich gold rushers. (As Begbick points out, “Gold is easier to take from men than from rivers”.) Soon, a group of prostitutes show up, led by Jenny Hill. They’re followed by four Alaskan lumberjacks (Jimmy, Jack, Bill and Joe) looking to spend their fortunes on pleasure. Jimmy and Jenny get together, but Jimmy soon tires of the constraints of Mahagonny. When a typhoon threatens the city, he convinces everyone to do away with rules and do whatever pleases them. The typhoon passes Mahagonny by, but its new hedonism causes chaos. Jack dies from overeating, and Joe dies in a boxing match. Jimmy, having bet all his money on Joe, is left penniless – a capital crime in Mahagonny. Neither Bill not Jenny will help him, so he is executed.

The Mahagonny envisioned by director Markus Dietz is a modern city framed by a giant illuminated “M”. Infographics during the second act helpfully let us know which form of pleasure we’re supposed to be engaged in. (The vulgar “love” animation is especially jarring.) The piano bar scene features an electronic player piano. When Jack eats two cows, it’s in the form of burgers from Burger King, washed down with Coca-Cola. Classic Fosse-style choreography by Lillian Stillwell adds to the superficial glitz. In a nod to Brechtian tradition, key words are sometimes projected onto the set (though Brecht’s scene titles are not used). Jenny and Jimmy deliver their farewell scene in an emotionless monotone, refusing the suit their actions to the text. The finale includes live camera footage from backstage and the wings. 

Vera-Lotte Böcker (Jenny) © Hans Jörg Michel (July 2017)
Vera-Lotte Böcker (Jenny)
© Hans Jörg Michel (July 2017)

As in most Weill/Brecht pieces, casting for acting ability matters more than beauty of sound. In that respect, these singers were perfect, creating sharply drawn characters and showing obvious comfort on the stage. There were also two standout voices: Cornelia Zink, who combined jazzy belting with gorgeous floated top notes as Jenny, and Jasmin Etezadzadeh, who sang Begbick with full, chesty tone. As her fellow criminals, sweet-voiced Raphael Wittmer as Fatty contrasted with raspy Thomas Jesatko as Moses. (An announcement that he was sick was made between the acts; that probably accounts for the dryness of his sound.)

Our hero Jimmy was played by Will Hartmann. His singing was harsh and frayed at the edges – sometimes more shouted than sung. But he inhabited Jimmy so fully that I wouldn’t have wanted to hear a different singer in the role; the unpleasantness of his sound added to the realism of his portrayal. The three other Alaskans had well-matched voices for their a cappella trio. Philipp Alexander Mehr gave a rich, deep sound to Joe, and Thomas Berau sang Billy with smooth, golden tones. As Jack, Uwe Eikötter deserves some sort of special award for croaking out his part in Act 2 through a mouth full of food.

Uwe Eikötter (Jacky) © Hans Jörg Michel
Uwe Eikötter (Jacky)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Benjamin Reiners and the orchestra seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as the cast. They gave the highly rhythmic score a sometimes-frantic drive and relished its mix of jazz and classical idioms. The brass and percussion got chances to shine in hurricane-related bits of music, which they delivered with energy and precision. The chorus also impressed with richly layered textures, particularly in their hymn, “O wunderbare Lösung”.

Mahagonny is no paradise. But the Nationaltheater Mannheim, when Mahagonny is playing, just might be.

****1