Absent from the Melbourne mainstage for over four decades, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny returns to rich life thanks to the combined resources and talents of local independent companies IOpera and Melbourne Opera.
Created at the peak of the Weimar Republic, the fascinating work offers abundant scope for interpretation and updating. Kurt Weill’s score deftly incorporates a diverse range of styles, with a tendency towards an undercurrent of gnawing tension. This production is well served by an English translation by Jeremy Sams, who has respectfully adapted the original text of Weill, Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann.
On the lam, a trio of broken down bandits decide to establish a town where they plan to take gold from men who have already done the hard work of taking gold from the rivers. Mahagonny soon attracts dozens of drifters and dreamers, not to mention a bevy of enthusiastic sex workers. An approaching hurricane spares Mahagonny but its residents wreak their own havoc, living to unbridled excess as they follow Jimmy McIntyre’s tenet of doing what you want so as to please yourself.
Director Suzanne Chaundy draws heightened, energised performances from the cast, creating the blackly amusing vibe of an adult pantomime as the dreamy decadence of Mahagonny takes a dark, deadly turn. With a relatively simple narrative, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny relies on characterful, charismatic performances, which are found here in abundance.
Chaundy’s contemporary vision for the cautionary tale leads to a salient final sequence, in which the backdrop for Jimmy’s execution is a montage of bushfires and floods, protests and riots, presented impactfully as the consequences for people living in ways that simply please themselves.
Maestro Peter Tregear helms a sterling performance from the generously sized orchestra, achieving particular success with the crisp oom-pah of Weill’s festive musical sequences. Trumpet playing is a highlight, with a clarion golden tone heard from the three players (led by David Melgaard).
As a special musical treat, renowned musician Joe Chindamo appears on stage playing piano and accordion.
Working with a plentiful number of highly capable singers, chorus master Raymond Lawrence reliably delivers a lush choral sound with rock solid harmonies. Diction is excellent overall, although the relatively unknown work would have benefited from surtitles so as to allow the audience a more relaxed listening experience.
Video artist Chris Hocking conjures an olde worlde movie house atmosphere with animated projections styled with the scratchy wear of vintage movie reels. In place of solid sets, these projections lend an air of vibrancy, with the animation creating an ongoing sense of movement throughout the scenes where they are utilised.
Jason Chalmers’ costuming, while terrific for the lead players, is somewhat uneven overall, with the sense of period setting lost due to the random appearance of the chorus members.
An almost vaudevillian tone is set by opening trio Liane Keegan (the widow Begbick), Christopher Hillier (Trinity Moses) and Robert Macfarlane (Fatty). Almost unrecognisable in a glossy blond wig, Keegan clearly positions Begbick as the key force of the group, and her resonant contralto is heard in excellent form. Hillier and Macfarlane each add to the comic energy, complementing their acting style with equally expressive vocals.
Distinguishing the quartet of Alaskan lumberjacks, magnetic tenor James Egglestone gives another highly memorable performance as free spirit Jimmy McIntyre. Egglestone provides the clear vocal highlight of the opera after Jimmy is put to death and reflects on his fate in “When the Sky is Bright.”
Antoinette Halloran delights as merry madam Jenny Hill, playing the confident seductress’ sexuality to the hilt. Halloran scores laughs when Jenny completely cleans up her act for the climactic trial, and more again when Jenny immediately has eyes for her next conquest when Jimmy is sentenced to death. With a soprano as pure as her character is impure, Halloran leaves the audience longing for more.
While Egglestone and Halloran’s performances stand out in their own right, mention must be made of the all too rare chance afforded by this season to see the husband and wife on stage together. This connection surely adds extra sparks to the fiery passion between Jimmy and Jenny.
Egglestone’s fellow lumberjacks are played by Christopher Tonkin (Billy), Darcy Carroll (Joe) and Fraser Findlay Jack). The group’s harmonies blend beautifully together and each puts their stamp on a distinctive character. Lively baritone Tonkin makes a very welcome addition to the cast. Often seen as a key chorus member, Carroll makes the most of a featured role to exhibit dynamic flair. Findlay’s high tenor voice rings out clear and strong.
Initially cancelled by COVID restrictions, this season of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny proves well worth the wait, and is a hardy testament to the mighty accomplishments that can be made by determination and cooperation.