From its stunningly filmic opening to its faux-Golgotha finale, the Royal Opera House’s new production of Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny demands our attention. One of the few works which Brecht and Weill managed to cooperate on before political differences destroyed their working relationship forever, Mahagonny is not exactly an opera, but a genre all its own: a pioneer’s tale, a parable of capitalism, a recipe for anarchy. Historically, the work was so profoundly anti-capitalist that its 1930 première in Leipzig provoked a riot from Nazi sympathisers in the audience. Perhaps they truly disliked Brecht’s analysis of capitalism, or perhaps they simply rejected the opera as they would later reject all Degenerate Art (Entartete Musik).

Degeneracy is the order of the day in Mahagonny, a city created by criminals for the purpose of extracting money from people by pandering to their most basic desires: food, sex, fighting and drink. Initial rules prove inimical to the happiness of Mahagonny’s inhabitants, who soon espouse anarchy as the only route to true satisfaction: with strange and deadly results, their pre-packaged heaven steadily turns into a hell.

Today, after the sub-prime mortgage fiasco and the collapse of economies all over the world, Brecht’s view of capitalism seems not so much prescient as passé. We all know that money does not buy happiness; we also know society shows no mercy to those who cannot pay. But Brecht’s brutal reduction of human needs and impulses to mere commercial interactions remains chilling. There is a dark grain in the Las Vegas glitz of this pleasure city, the spider’s web, whose perfectly-packaged freedoms bring death. And, as some cheekily-inserted notes “of which Brecht and Weill would not have been aware” tell us, in large projected letters across the Royal Opera House stage, human greed since 1930 has significantly increased the incidence of natural disasters like hurricanes, the other great threat to hang over Mahagonny: we are also “spoiling the world just fine”.   

Director John Fulljames has created a riotous and full-blooded production which engages and involves us. Acting is, in the Brechtian manner, more deliberate than natural, fitting the surreal tone of the whole, while projected headings, notes and slogans continuously footnote the action, as well as the surtitles (which sometimes stray from the sung words, or vice versa). Jeremy Sams’ English translation feels fresh and punchy. Overall, although many characters speak with English accents, it feels like a companion piece to the Royal Opera House’s recent production of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, another American-Dream-turned-nightmare: fun, dark, magnificently entertaining, but ultimately a little confused. This is not Fulljames’s fault, but Brecht’s, whose libretto gets unwieldy at times, giving way to a strangely incoherent ending. In fact, as Theodor W. Adorno noted in 1930 (Moments Musicaux): “The opera as a whole evades a rational solution – the images of dominant horror which it projects are brought forth in accordance with its own logic only to be collapsed again at the end into the social reality whose origins they contain.”

When the pacing of the work flags, as it occasionally does, Es Devlin’s statuesque sets absorb the eye, full of colour and energy, while fabulous video projections by Finn Ross accentuate the opera’s best qualities, all well integrated into Devlin’s set designs: Mahagonny is a masterclass in how visuals can add to a fully staged opera, rather than operating as a handy substitute for scenery.

Weill’s music is consciously and infectiously melodic, a scrapbook of sounds from the Medieval to the modern, all rolled up into one glorious bundle of tunes. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, creates a huge and beautiful sound, though the balance between orchestra and singers sometimes becomes a tussle for supremacy. The Royal Opera Chorus is on superb form, making the most of some wonderful choral writing from Weill. As they were loaded onto the Mahagonny lorry, I was irresistibly reminded of the naughty boys in Disney’s Pinocchio being lured to “Pleasure Island”, only to be turned into donkeys and dispatched to worse fates.

Anne Sophie von Otter is a memorable Leokadja Begbick, strutting and commanding the stage, singing with eerie beauty. Always a treat when singing, von Otter struggled with the mixture of speech (for which she sounded miked) and singing (for which she was not); her voice coach seems to have decided on Jenny Eclair as her accent model, which von Otter maintained scrupulously, but which never quite suited the steely ruthlessness of Begbick for me. Christine Rice is a warm-voiced, well-acted revelation as the cold-hearted prostitute Jenny. “Oh show us the way to the next whiskey bar” came across with a mixture of world-weary insouciance and abject desperation, truly sad but also – oddly – fun. This kind of mood-bending nonchalance is typical of Mahagonny as a whole: the opera moves constantly from absurdity to frank nihilism, never quite settling for long enough to commit to either.

Willard W. White is on rich-voiced and resounding form as Trinity Moses, while Peter Hoare is a well-characterised Fatty, both Begbick’s sidekicks. Kurt Streit made a moving role debut as Jimmy McIntyre: “Oh brothers, I’ve no wish to be human” and “All of this I suffered to reach Mahagonny” were particularly effective, though occasionally he struggled to sing over the orchestra elsewhere. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts is a delightfully gluttonous Jack O’Brien, his death an especially stark and harrowing moment, while Neal Davies is an appealingly pathetic Alaska Wolf Joe. The memorable final ensemble, “God came to Mahagonny”, leaves us on a cruel note of despair shot through with arrogant, brash humour.