The caustic tale of the three runaways Trinity Moses (the reliable Willard White), Fatty (a suitably slimy Peter Hoare) and Begbick (Anne Sofie von Otter as a scary Zandra Rhodes-meets-Janet Streetporter) who found a city of sin where their van breaks down in ‘Amerika’ may have lost its power to shock, but John Fulljames’s vivid production makes an impact. Designer Es Devlin’s ingenious use of first a lorry, and then a vast wall of shipping crates, to reveal bordellos, gaming rooms, memories of Alaska, bars and a torture chamber is practically and metaphorically spot on. One half expected George Clarke (of Amazing Spaces) to pop out of one of them and start exhorting the wonders of conversion…
It’s the first time Mahagonny has been seen at Covent Garden, and one could argue the expanded song-spiel doesn’t belong on that stage at all. While its musky, gritty, trumpet-flecked score was potent in Mark Wigglesworth’s hands, and the chorus switched brilliantly from faux Bach chorale to agitprop anthem, there was a distinctly uncomfortable – often inconsistent – mix of approaches on stage. Anne sofie von Otter’s sonorous speaking voice came across in resplendent Estuarine tones, but she appeared to resort to a microphone half-way through: this could have been a prop, but some kind of amplification veered in and out of focus throughout her performance. By contrast, Christine Rice was convincing as the sultry anti-heroine Jenny, playing it vocally straight, but lending her fine mezzo a dusty, dragging quality in the indelible ‘Alabama Song’.
She provides an emotional focus both for the audience and for naive Jimmy (a bleakly bewildered Kurt Streit) in a world of vacant lust (there’s nothing quite so unsexy as a row of men with their trousers round their ankles). The real sexual predator turns out to be Begbick, sporting her Mulberry bag and, legs akimbo, enjoying a spot of cunnilingus from the murderer who owes her his freedom. She’s surely the evil twin of Puccini’s pious Girl of the Golden West: brothel keeper, venture capitalist and judge.
Brecht is at his most sharply prescient in the Act 2 court room drama: thieves and murderers can buy their way out, but Jimmy’s crime will cost him his life, for it is the worst of all: debt. As George Osborne reminds us on a daily basis, serving the Debt is our sacred duty. Ice caps may melt, populations starve, genocides go unchecked: only the crunch of Credit can stir mankind into action.
The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny runs at the Royal Opera House until 4 April