Overcoming Obstacles

The Threepenny Opera At Leverett House Nov 9-12, 16-18

To HELL WITH posterity: I write for today," Kurt Weill remarked about the period during which he was writing The Threepenny Opera. But 44 years after its premiere in the Berlin Goebbels had just told "you're going to have a lot of fun with us," the opera is unfortunately as powerful and pointed as ever, with no end in sight.

Once in a while, one may notice a similar visibility problem in the Leverett House production of the opera, but Weill's music and Bertolt Brecht's words ultimately triumph over all obstacles.

The most important obstacle is determined overacting during the first two acts, in which we most the opera's seedy underworld characters. Histrionics are fine and director. Charles Langmuir uses them to good effect, in the big crowd scenes where Brecht attacks society's corruption directly. But in more intimate scenes, where the attack is subtler, the acting ought to be more delicate, too.

Langmuir might have taken a tip from Weill, whom songs generally make their points by threatening to become happy, lyrical jazz just before they turn irretrievably sour. The opera's overture--a sort of bitter chorale in which the saxophones seems to be playing Bach just a little out of tune--sets the mood, and then things really get underway with the Moritat, better known as "Mack the Knife." If you have only heard Mantovani versions, you can have no idea what bite this song has. Stephen Schmidt, the conductor, puts it across beautifully, although the band has an occasional ragged moment later on.

THE OPERA'S second-best-known song is "Pirate Jenny," probably the most beautiful expression of venomous hate ever written. The song is about its singer's dream of killing everyone the knows. Nancy Frangione, the cast's standout as Polly, the latest of Mack the Knife's brides, manages to squeeze out all the song's acid lyricism without imitating Lotts Lenye. The other female leads--especially Deirdre Carson as Jenny Drive--are nearly as good.

In the third act, when Brecht pulls out all the stops the posturing of Peter Kazaras, who plays Mack the Knife, becomes appropriate and effective. Mack is to be hanged. His friend, the police commissioner, is powerless, terrified at a beggar king's threats to send an army of professional paupers to disrupt Queen Victoria's coronation unless Mack is executed. Kazaras rises to the occasion. "What is the robbing of a bank to the founding of one?" he asks. A mounted messenger promptly rushes up to knight him, though Brecht reassures us that real life would not have come out so happily. We are left with Weill's corrosive tunes and a second-act reminder that shines through Marc Blitzstein's generally smooth translation: "For even honest men may act like sinners, unless they've had their customary dinners."

The Leverett House production is not perfect by any means, but gets a small boost from Peter Agoo's set--consisting largely of bundles of hay--that is versatile and funny. Ultimately, though, it's what Brecht says that is important and Weill's music comes through triumphantly, making The Threepenny Opera a masterpiece.