This 1931 adaptation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s German play follows Mack the Knife (Rudolf Forster), a kind of celebrity crook à la the Krays or Jared Kushner.
The writers sued this production (a Kurt case?) so unhappy were they with the project, Weill for the cannibalisation of his score (there’s only 30 minutes of music) and Brecht for the emphasis on sentiment over satire. Weill it’s admittedly no longer an opera, their worries seem misplaced since the songs are so well-staged and the satire still sharp as Mack’s knife.
Victorian Soho is seen through the non-conformist Weimar lens, enabling searing critique of class, homelessness and monarchy that rings loudly in the current climate of booming rough sleeping and steep gentrification. Brecht intended his play to be for as well as about beggars (it’s based on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera), giving it a folk-opera quality reminiscent of Porgy and Bess.
Much of the absurdist drama symbolically takes place beneath the streets of London, realised through ingenious set design in which every component has a part to play. G. W. Pabst’s direction retains the Verfremdungseffekt or alienating effect of Brecht’s work by drawing attention to the production’s artifice, via illogical curtains and stairs leading nowhere in particular.
Occupying these expressionist spaces are a host of memorable characters including Mack’s notably strong wife Polly (Carola Neher) and the corrupt police chief Tiger Brown (Reinhold Schünzel), possibly the best operatic character name since Sportin’ Life. Lotte Lenya (From Russia With Love‘s Rosa Klebb) also stars, and gets one of the best songs in the form of Pirate Jenny.
Banned by the Nazis for its Marxism, The Threepenny Opera is as funny, fresh and ferocious as ever. Like Cabaret meets Filth, it has a revolutionary resonance and musical prowess that towers over Les Misérables and feels less like pulling teeth.