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IN A STRIKING DEPARTURE FROM THEIR USUal fare of Mozart and Puccini standards, this year the Lowell House Music Society brought Kurt Weill's and Bertolt Brecht's "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" to the Lowell House dining hall. Although a number of small problems surfaced during the performance, the ultimate result was a powerful and provoking experience.
The plot, which rivals "Candide" in its implausibility, centers around three American fugitives, the Widow Begbick (Valerie Eaton), Trinity Moses (Bob Grady), and Fatty the Procurist (Eric Aubin), who in a desperate attempt to make money found a city of pleasure in the desolate Alabama wilderness. The trio invent the name "Mahagonny," (meaning "city of nets," according to the characters) and fill the city with workers, criminals, pimps and prostitutes, offering weary adventurers a life of pure hedonism. "Mahagonny," like Brecht himself, is decidedly anti-capitalist and even anarchistic, and the doomed city exemplifies the amazing freedoms and pleasures of the flesh that many capitalist societies offer.
The money-making scheme proceeds smoothly until a gang of Alaskan loggers arrive bringing with them a woodcutter who is dissatisfied with Mahagonny. In the Lowell production, Jimmy McIntyre (Emmanuel Mani Cadet) is portrayed as somehow more innocent and pure than his fellow men despite his almost immediate adoption of Jenny (Laura Bewig) as his prostitute and lover. Director Kirk Williams portrays Jimmy's dissatisfaction as stemming from Mahagonny's obvious flaws (its lack of concern for anything other than human pleasure), while the libretto itself and an understanding of Brecht's theater would indicate that Jimmy is no better than his fellow men and that he becomes dissatisfied when the leaders of the city begin to put restrictions ("Don't catch more than three fish," "Please be careful with the chairs") on his freedom. Nevertheless, before Jimmy has the chance to act on his convictions, a typhoon appears on the horizon. With the destruction of the city imminent, Jimmy decides that, if he must die tomorrow, he will live this day to the fullest. The typhoon misses the city, but Jimmy's philosophy strikes a chord and the city, allowing everyone total freedom, descends to the deepest levels of sin.
During the second act, the people indulge in the most extreme vulgarity. One lumber-jack (Craig Hanson) eats himself to death; another (Kirk Bangstad '99) is killed in a boxing match, and all of the men of the city push and shove for a short trip through the whorehouse. Finally, Jimmy indulges in drinking but is unable to pay the bill. Again, it would seem that Jimmy, while certainly influenced by the city's greedy leaders, is just as guilty as the other sinners, but in this production he is portrayed as an innocent victim. His subsequent arrest, however, makes clear that there is one crime that the people of Mahagonny do not tolerate: poverty.
Abandoned by Jenny and the other lumberjacks, Jimmy is tried and sentenced to death for his inability to pay. Again, throughout the trial sequence, Jimmy appears as a victim of the system, possessing an innocence that his wanton actions do not betray. His distinguishing feature is a yearning for total anarchic freedom, a desire that is stymied by the government of Mahagonny. After his execution the city falls apart; its citizens' total freedom has intensified their ideological differences, and the center cannot hold.
The Lowell House Music Society did an excellent job with what was at the very least an ambitious undertaking. The cast was as diverse as ever, ranging from Harvard first-years to NEC graduate students. As such, there was an extremely wide range of vocal styles and abilities. Laura Bewig and Emmanuel Cadet shone as the star-crossed Jenny and Jimmy, and both possessed exquisite, classically trained voices. Most of the other singers diverged somewhat from the operatic ideal; some, such as Valerie Eaton and her cabaret-style croonings, fit marvelously with the music, while other sounds, such as Eric Aubin's rock and roll affectations, seemed out of place in Mahagonny. Craig Hanson, Paul Lincoln (Bank-Account Bill), Bob Grady, Kirk Bangstad, and the women's chorus were all quite strong, but the men's chorus left something to be desired. The orchestra was superb and almost never overwhelmed the singers on stage. Under the skillful baton of music director Steven Huang '95, they moved effortlessly through a constant barrage of varied tempi and wildly disparate musical styles.
The show's entire design, with its minimalist sets, gaudy costumes, and exposed spotlights, convincingly evoked the atmosphere of a European circus. While some effects, such as striking sillouhettes against the bright backdrop, worked beautifully, others, such as the projection of stars onto the ceiling, unfortunately looked extremely amateurish.
Other minor problems plagued the performance, but these were primarily small things, such as out of step dance numbers, creaking stages that made some lines inaudible, and scenes that began and ended abruptly.
Brecht's original libretto ends with the city's destruction by fire. Although the director has chosen to end on a more ambiguous note, the production staff compensated by raising the dining hall to near-broiling temperatures.
Although this "Mahagonny" differes in several ways from the authors' original intentions and was beset by a number of minor problems, it was on the whole an excellent performance. The Lowell House Opera has risen admirably to meet the demands of a challenging and difficult piece of theater.
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