Off to Leeds again for a night of musical entertainment courtesy of Opera North, West Yorkshire Playhouse and the City Varieties Music Hall, carried across the moors in a timely manner by TransPennine Express. I mention this only because it was a day of action by Northern Rail and I feared I might miss this equally timely tribute to the radical German composer, Kurt Weill. I’m sure he would have had something to say about how little political change and social equality has been achieved since his day.
Weill lived in turbulent times. He saw the Weimar Republic, the rise of Hitler, World War Two and America’s ascension to world dominance. All of which was reflected, filtered and commented upon in his music. At City Varieties, we were treated by a wonderful cast and pianist to a full two hours of a thoroughly entertaining evening of Weill’s life and times as told through his songs.
Weill is best known for his collaboration with that other German radical, Bertolt Brecht, and the night began with their break-out hit The Ballad of Mack the Knife from the revolutionary Threepenny Opera. Of course, the pair didn’t have the same success in the late 1920s but Mack the Knife is the most recognisable and memorable of all of Weill’s considerable oeuvre. It is a musical critique of capital and tells the tale of untermench, Macheath. Mackie is involved in small-time rackets with a death sentence hanging over his head. For Weill and Brecht, it was the lumpenproletariat like Mack who would constitute the revolutionary vanguard in the struggle for communism.
Mack the Knife is full of charming menace as well as Macheath’s undeniable sexual allure. The company of Alex Banfield, Amy Freston, Lorna James, Laura Kelly-McInroy, Stuart Laing, Richard Mosley-Evans, Amy J Payne, Dean Robinson, Gordon D Shaw, Kathryn Walker and Nicholas Watts, accompanied on stage by Martin Pickard and illuminated only by torchlight and dressed in evening wear, created just the right mixture of sex and threat that set the tone for the rest of the performance.
Using the opera form with jazz and popular song influences, Weill upended the cosy bourgeois world of Berlin opera and gave it a social purpose to great acclaim. The tension between Weill and Brecht grew as Brecht moved further to the left leaving Weill to comment that he was “unable to set the Communist Manifesto to music”.
As the political upheaval of Weimar Germany grew, their success began to stall. Happy End closed after seven performances and the premiere of their last collaboration, the opera Mahagonny, was disrupted by members of the new right, the Nazis. The first act of Berlin to Broadway closes with a truly blistering performance of Surabaya Johnny from Happy End. Amy J Payne belted out this heartbreaking tale of love and loss with such anger, fire, regret and recrimination that she left me breathless.
With his move to America in 1935, Weill lost his political edge and devoted himself to composing paeans to his new homeland. Act Two opens with a fabulous hymn to gelato from Street Scene, the ravenous Ice Cream. His collaborations with Maxwell Anderson, Ogden Nash and Ira Gershwin produced songs as American and cheesy as my pre-theatre Five Guys burger. He returned to his social concerns with Street Scene with which we received a lovely, lonesome rendition from a lonely Alex Banfield in a Lonely House. Weill died in 1950.
The evening ended with a great collective call to revolt from The Threepenny Opera, What Keeps a Man Alive, followed by a reprise of the classic Mack the Knife. With the wonderful performance coming to such a glorious conclusion, I clapped as hard as I could before trundling over the Pennines with Weill’s songs ringing in my ears and revolution in my heart.
By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent