Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

After the Fall

February 24, 2007

Patti LuPone and cast
Photo: Robert Millard 2007

My partner and I often debate which is preferable – to see a great performance of a mediocre opera or a mediocre or bad performance of a great one?

Case in point: LA Opera’s current new production of Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny which I saw earlier this week. (Yes, I know that some people with too much time on their hands will want to dicker over whether or not this is an opera and then furthermore whether or not it is a “great” one.) I had high expectations for this production with an experienced and lauded Broadway/Opera hybrid cast and a new production directed by Broadway director-du-jour John Doyle. Plus, this would be a chance to see a not frequently performed work under the musical leadership of James Conlon. Needless to say, I was hugely disappointed to discover this evening would fall into the opening question’s later category as I began to wonder about the relative joys of seeing some half-assed Figaro instead of this very boring production.

I would have to agree with the nearly-always on target Mark Swed in that the biggest problem is that this Mahagonny is far too sweet and easy going for a work that trades in society’s ills and a fierce indictment of cultural hypocrisy. There was about as much malice on stage as found in your average Disney film. Everyone is shifty and slimy but you wouldn't know that by the way the characters were dressed. Many of Jenny’s fellow prostitutes in Mahagonny end up looking less like whores and more like middle-aged women who never quite got over their failed auditions for orphan parts in Annie. The cast members frequently stand around with vacant looks on their faces when not performing, creating the effect of some catwalk left over from fashion week. Doyle seems to have missed that there is a difference between decadence and apathy.

What is perhaps most disappointing though is that so much talent goes to such poor use here. Audra McDonald is engaging and handles the Weil songs well. An unamplified Anthony Dean Griffey held his own and was a completely convincing Jimmy. Even Patti LuPone did an admirable job playing up to her strengths as an actor. But their cause was a lost one in the midst of a huge, empty, and amateurishly decorated set. What little action there was centered around various cast memebers struggling with tangles and snags in a number of large flags they are asked to wield and drape themselves in over and over throughout the evening. But there are no doubt worse sins than this one. Despite the many problems, LA Opera should be given credit for trying something a little off the beaten path. Even if everything doesn’t quite work, at least they are trying.

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