Even for those that have seen just one of his numerous productions that have criss-crossed the world, director Robert Wilson “style” – de-emphasizing the importance of the plot in favor of miraculous, surreal visuals and auditory effects – is easily recognizable. Some of his works have been very successful, some less. Even his greatest admirers feel, at times, that he looks at everything with too much of a single lens.

Johanna Griebel (Polly) and Christopher Nell (Macheath) © Barbara Braun
Johanna Griebel (Polly) and Christopher Nell (Macheath)
© Barbara Braun

There is little doubt that his production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper, first presented in 2007 on the same Theater auf der Schiffbauerdamm stage as the original, is one of the most remarkable of his later career. A new revival produced by the (presently closed) Parisian Théâtre de la Ville at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées looks stunning, meaningfully adding to the spectator’s confusion. Is this an opera? A play? A cabaret performance? Or, maybe just an art exhibition with musical accompaniment?

Brecht and Weill transferred John Gay and Johann Christoph Pepusch's 1728 The Beggar's Opera from William Hogarth’s 18th-century London to a century later, the time of Queen Victoria’s coronation, introducing multiple references to their own historical period and taking a political stand. By emphasizing connections to the visual arts and cinematography of the Weimar Republic, to Expressionism and Neue Sachlichkeit, Wilson reinforced the latter link. Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, controller of the army of beggars, looks similar to one of Otto Dix’s portraits of Alfred Flechtheim. With ample help from his usual costume designer, Jacques Reynaud, the dangerous criminal Macheath is depicted as an androgynous character with Chaplinesque gestures, a blond Marlene Dietrich-inspired coiffure and black lace undergarments. Jenny’s silhouette reminds you a Georg Grosz’s drawing. The heavily powdered faces with accentuated eyebrows seem to be descending from Nosferatu or another Murnau movie. At the same time, the codified universe that Wilson conceives – neon lights, fantastical hairdos and maquillage, hieratical movements – makes everything seem outside any specific time and place.

Traute Hoess (Mrs Peachum), Johanna Griebel (Polly) and Jürgen Holtz (Peachum) © Lucie Jansch
Traute Hoess (Mrs Peachum), Johanna Griebel (Polly) and Jürgen Holtz (Peachum)
© Lucie Jansch

Die Dreigroschenoper would be a very arid exercise, lacking Kurt Weill’s sentimental and at the same time mordant, jazz-inspired score, interpreted with pathos and self deprecation by a small ensemble lead by Han Jörn Brandenburg and Stefan Rager. Regardless of how special some of the Weill songs – “Wedding Song”, “Canon Song”, “Walk to Gallows” – are, Wilson is not interested in the quality of the sound. Most of the voices and instrumental music are deliberately distorted by microphones. More, in order to make sure that the music is not generating any “unwanted” emotions, constant noises – squealing doors, footsteps, parting curtains – are perturbing any potential harmony.

What makes The Threepenny Opera different from other works with realistic narratives that Bob Wilson has “transformed” (Aida, Butterfly), is that Brecht’s opus was already imbued, from its first performance in 1928, with the kind of interpretative detachment the American director seeks. Brecht’s ideas about how art should be approached were not so very different from Wilson’s. His method, called “Verfremdungseffekt” (alienation or estrangement from the narrative) was characterized by traits that are easily recognizable in Wilson’s productions: minimal sets; a prescribed repertory of individual gestures and body postures; fracturing the plot into multiple episodes, not necessarily linked together; actors that avoid fully becoming the characters they represent. One interesting difference, though. Brecht employed only open white light, believing that color would generate an unwanted emotional effect from the spectators. As one can see here, strong colors used in big swaths or just to accentuate a hand gesture, are for Wilson an essential element of his visual language.

Christopher Nell (Macheath) and ensemble © Barbara Braun
Christopher Nell (Macheath) and ensemble
© Barbara Braun

Wilson’s ability to employ the Berliner Ensemble, a troupe that Brecht and his wife, actress Helene Weigl, established in 1949, means a lot for the success of his mis-en-scène. The tradition of interpreting Brecht’s work has been nurtured and carefully transmitted in this organization from one generation to the next. Every voice inflexion is calculated. The way these actor-singers interact is truly remarkable. Such a level of homogeneity couldn’t have been achieved by any director in a limited number of rehearsals. Jürgen Holtz is fantastically inexpressive as Mister Peachum. His Munch-inspired, silent screams are scary. As his wife, Traute Hess, moves and smiles like a real marionette. Forty years after playing the main role in Volker Schöndorff’s “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum”, Angela Winkler is both poignant and elegantly fragile as Jenny the whore, especially in her solo at the police station. Christopher Nell, interpreting Macheath is falsely more graceful than menacing as much as Johanna Griebel – Polly, his wife and the Peachum daughter – is falsely more ingénue than determined.

Robert Wilson has a lot of confidence in the members of the Berliner Ensemble. It would be very interesting to see where he would lead them upon approaching other, more dogmatic, brechtian oeuvres such as Mutter Courage or The Life of Galileo.