05 April 2009

Exchange Rate: Dreigroschen = Threepenny = Quat’sous = 21€

The Barbacane

The Barbacane is one of Beynes’ great treasures, a cultural center serving several communities and housing a library, a variety of activities (such as painting and dance classes), and a theater. Most often used to screen movies, the 300-seat space also hosts concerts, dance programs, and the occasional theatrical production. Last night was one such occasion, when Kurt Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera, known in French as L'Opéra de Quat’sous) took the stage for a single performance, a co-production of the amateur groups Collectif 12 and the Ecole Nationale de Musique de Mantes en Yvelines.

As a Weill buff of longstanding, I attended eagerly, but uncertain what to expect. Our little town is fairly conservative, by French political standards, and middle-class: how would Bertolt Brecht’s social satire play here? I had doubts on an artistic level, too. Based on the evidence of the several productions I’ve seen, Threepenny is especially difficult to produce. Stage directors can’t resist monkeying with it, and music directors don’t respect it; all subsequent abuses are excused by the notion that bad theater and bad music are somehow more authentically Brechtian: echt Brecht. (The idea that Brecht approved of people’s performing his work their way is belied by the volumes he wrote to explain how to do things his way: the Revolution, he suggests, will not be improvised.) The last time I saw a production, on Broadway in 2006, the mess onstage proved deeply discouraging. To my surprise, last night’s performance got a great many things exactly right.

A scene from Pabst’s Dreigroschenfilm

Most impressive was Jean-Christophe André’s musical direction. Leading an 11-man ensemble, he paced a lively yet respectful reading of Weill’s score, and my biggest complaint was that he didn’t bring enough variety to "Pirate Jenny," a number that really benefits from more sensitive phrasing. (Get it right, stretch it out at the end, and the effect is spellbinding.) Though Polly Peachum (Myriam Krivine) was easily the most accomplished singer in the cast, André opted here for a brisk, undifferentiated drive, and thus we all missed an opportunity. André seemed most comfortable in the score’s most demanding (and most Classical) sections: Peachum’s Morning Call and the three Dreigroschenfinales can seldom have been performed in this country with greater majesty and urgency. (Which is to say, correctly.) Krivine threw herself into the character and sang with point and a supple lyric soprano; she’s one of the better Pollys I've seen.

Frédéric Fachéna’s stage direction set the action in the present day but interpolated no fancy concept or outside business: this was the text itself, presented on its own terms. (That said, references to bankers and money proved all-too topical and prompted rueful laughter: this show is still relevant, without extra tinkering.) The set, a series of interlocking boxes, broke apart to create doors, rooms, and Macheath's jail cell; plywood walls broke off in discrete panels to be transformed into placards for the beggars: a neat idea that didn’t work smoothly in performance and looked a bit tatty, even for this show.

Unfortunately, neither Fachéna nor André worked hard enough on the principals’ diction: only Krivine and Eric Gamirian (Peachum) could be clearly understood throughout, both speaking and singing. (A native French-speaker watching with me confirmed that this wasn’t merely a problem for the American in the room.) Most of the cast had terrible trouble with pitch, though in the case of Marie Luti (Mrs. Peachum), this seemed to be a character choice; and the otherwise appealing Mbembo (as Jenny) was struggling with some sort of cold. Much can be pardoned by circumstance, yet Threepenny will always fall short of the mark if the texts are unclear, and painful, effortful singing is neither Brechtian nor Weillian.

The great surprise of the evening came during the Second Dreigroschenfinale, when suddenly the audience in the house-left side of the auditorium began to sing along, boosting the number’s impact tremendously. (Almost like Sensurround.) Apparently it’s the custom of the producers, when bringing in a show, to contact a local singing club and to ask them to participate this way. Pretty cool, I must say, to see neighbors I recognize from the market intoning that music.

Kurt Weill isn’t well-known or understood in this country, and yet he keeps finding ways to make his points. I'm glad to have been around, this time, even if the 21€ admission was somewhat pricier than the four-sous original. Cheaper and better than Broadway, believe it or not.

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