The Threepenny Opera
Malthouse Theatre and Victorian Opera
2 June 2010
Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse
"The good old diggers, who pull their triggers from Bagdad to Khe Sanh..." There's no doubt that Malthouse Theatre and Victoria Opera have relocated the The Threepenny Opera down under.
And where better than Underbelly Melbourne, where the Peachams gaze at the moon over St Kilda and Mac loves a whorehouse in North Bulleen. Throw in a dream cast of Melbourne favourites and you've got a show sold out before it opens.
Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera was first performed in Berlin in 1928. It went to Broadway and, according to Wikipedia, has had over 10,000 productions since – a number that would probably triple with the uncountable amateur, high school and university productions.
Michael Kantor chose this loved and still astonishing piece of theatre for his Malthouse swansong and what a way to go! From the moment Paul Capsis sings "Mack the Knife" in a yellow dress and a blindfold, there's no doubt that the ride's going to be bumpy and exciting in all the right ways.
As Brecht worked with Weill, Kantor has again teamed with Richard Gill, following from their stunning 2008 collaboration Through the Looking Glass. Gill's Victorian Opera continues to pull down the artifice and misconceptions about this shiny form and celebrates it with incomparable style and invention.
Much of Weill's genius lay in his ability to write extraordinary songs for singers and non-singers, but combining the best performers from the opera and cabaret/musical theatre worlds still offers its challenges. It's impossible to compare the crystal clear vocals of contemporary opera superstar Dimity Shepherd (Lucy) with the husky belting of Capsis (Jenny), but Kantor ensures that this combination of unlikely voices is natural in this world and Gill ensures that they complement each other in unexpected ways.
It's difficult to discuss the cast without using the word perfect, or Perfect. Highlights include every moment Judi Connelli and Grant Smith sing as the Peachams; Capsis giving Lotte Lenya a run for her money; Anna O'Byrne (Polly) and Shepherd's "Jealousy Duet"; and Casey Bennetto (Tiger Brown) and Mac's "Canon Song". Eddie Perfect is Macheath – and yes he is. If you like your Macs cold and brooding, this "sadist and a rapist" may seem a bit nice, but it's hard to be cold when you're wearing glittery braces and by the end of Act 2 there's few in the audience not wanting a filthy lusty moment with Mac.
The design team of Peter Corrigan (set) and Anna Cordingley (costume) have coloured a world that supports the characters, but doesn't feel like the Melbourne being sung about, and the designs seem to complete with each other for the dominant images, which oddly mixes agit-prop, boxing and clown-face metaphors. At times they look beautiful together, but it's not too hard to imagine the set with plain black costumes or the costumes in an empty black space.
None of which takes away from this production.
With such wonders on the stage, it could be easy to forget the orchestra, but the vocal/orchestral balance is ideal and Gill's musical direction is so like listening to early recordings of the work, that it is surely how Weill imagined it to sound. And Brecht would have had a proud giggle at the bawdy Aussie interpretation of the text and lyrics by Raymond Cortese and Jeremy Sands.
Once you discover Brecht and Weill, there's no going back to a theatre world without them and great professional productions of The Threepenny Opera should not be missed. This one is officially sold out, but limited tickets may become available, so check the Malthouse website.
This review appears on AussieTheatre.com.
Richard and Eddie
Alan and Cyndi