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We tend to think of great music as universal and timeless, transcending specific circumstances of inspiration. Thus Beethoven may have penned his “Eroica” Symphony in reaction to Napoleon, but its potent subtext of heroism, grief, and triumph resonate 200 years later. While continuing to speak to us across the ages, other works are very much of their time � Handel’s “Water Music” conjures the splendor of baroque royalty and George Crumb’s “Black Angels” evokes the confusion and pain of the Vietnam War. “The Threepenny Opera” unmistakably recalls Berlin on a precipice between the World Wars, when the vacuum of its shattered culture eagerly embraced new influences with a decadent zest fueled by the desperation of a crashed economy and social unrest. And yet, its core seems chillingly current. Despite its relevance to Berlin of the 1920s, “The Threepenny Opera” had its origin in London two full centuries earlier. John Gay’s 1727 “The Beggar’s Opera” had created a sensation by skewering the conventions (and pretensions) of trendy Italianate opera and its florid arias, noble characters, and rigid morality. Gay’s work introduced a new genre, the “ballad opera,” in which bawdy common folk warbled popular tunes while adrift in life’s problems. The music, arranged by Johann Pepusch, boasted an overture and 68 songs that pop up every minute or so, all broadside ballads or other well-known melodies with new and often satiric lyrics. (Thus “Oh London is a Fair Town” became “Our Polly is a Sad Slut.”) The wacky plot involves Polly Peacham, whose parents run a lucrative fencing ring and are upset that she’s secretly married the robber Macheath � until they realize that they can make her a wealthy widow by claiming the reward for turning him in to be hanged. In a final twist, Macheath is spared from the gallows because opera audiences should leave happy. “The Beggar’s Opera” was a huge success � as one critic of the time noted, it made Rich (the theater owner) very gay and Gay very rich. A 1922 London revival struck a deeply responsive chord in Marxist poet Bertold Brecht, who was struck by its resonance with the ferment of Berlin, in which hypocritical entrepreneurs were living off, rather than by, the established moral codes. Brecht was evolving a notion of “epic drama” that would appeal to the masses rather than to the elite, reflect the reality of existence rather than idealism, and promote didacticism and reflection over emotion. His ideal collaborator for the project was Kurt Weill, a young Berlin composer who found in Brecht’s poems a complement to his own goal of bridging the widening gap between serious art and public taste. “The Beggar’s Opera” seemed an ideal vehicle to condemn bourgeois convention and agitate for social change. Brecht called his adaptation “Dreigroshenoper” (“Threepenny Opera”), by which he meant a work beggars could afford but so splendid in concept that only beggars could imagine. As J�rgen Schebera has since noted, Brecht cobbled his lyrics from a deliberately awkward, arrhythmic, and repetitious mix of Biblical quotations, tired clich�s, and street slang, and Weill’s music draws upon and abruptly shifts among classics, popular dance tunes, and jazz. Indeed, much of the work’s energy derives from these constant multileveled tensions, thus perhaps symbolizing the Marxian principle of progress arising from a synthesis of opposites. The presentation was intended to counteract the gritty plot. By drawing a clear division between music and drama, Weill and Brecht recalled the origins of opera, in which lengthy arias intruded into essentially theatrical dramas, and distanced themselves from the current practice of through-composing, with music smoothly blended into the narrative. Indeed, the songs brazenly interrupt the action and are announced by lighting changes and projected slides. The roles were cast with actors rather than trained singers, who spoke their lines rhythmically and with vague intonation, their easy linear melodies often doubled by instruments from a seven-piece band that sat at the rear of the stage surrounding a fairground pipe organ, thus flaunting the rag-tag attitude and barely disguising the theatrical artifice. Brecht and Weill wrote the entire show in a spontaneous surge, and when the lead actor demanded a striking entrance, they produced a new opening number overnight. Their “Moritat,” based on authentic street-fair singers’ recitations of the crimes of notorious criminals, became a sensation. Three decades later, as “Mack the Knife,” it would spawn huge hits for Bobby Darin, Louis Armstrong, and others, and it remains one of the most popular songs of the century. SHARPENED CRITICISM Brecht’s book and Weill’s score sharpen the social criticism of Gay’s original, always with an intriguing but queasy unrest. Among the bizarre new plot twists, Mac grooms Polly to oversee his “business” in his absence, so she puts her training to good use as a bank president � as she says, why bother robbing one person when you can rob the public? At her wedding, celebrated amid lavish food and d�cor stolen by Mac’s henchmen, Polly dreams of massacring a whole town of men in “Pirate Jenny” (chillingly sung by Judy Collins on her “In My Life” album). Tiger Brown, Mac’s army buddy and now the police chief, drops in to recall the burdens of soldiering in the rousing “Cannon Song.” A bedraggled Polly explains to her horrified parents why nice men bore her in the teasingly sweet “Barbara-Song.” Mac and Jenny recall their blissful former life of pimping and whoring together in a lovely tango. Each act ends in a pompous finale that seeks to probe the deepest questions of humankind, but arrives at far more basic conclusions; the first one ends: “The world is poor and man’s a shit/And that is all there is to it!” The premiere was sparsely attended, but word of this bizarre entertainment spread quickly. As George Martin noted with irony, the show treads a thin line, managing to keep audiences sufficiently amused so that they come to be insulted. According to Schebera, within the first year alone 50 theaters presented 4,000 performances and record shops bulged with 40 recordings on 20 labels. By 1933, with translations made into 18 languages, “Dreigroschenoper” received the ultimate accolade for its challenging politics and music when the Nazis not only banned further performances, but also demanded that all scores be relinquished for destruction. Weill himself became a prime target for Nazi cultural purification, vilified with the dastardly crime of polluting German art with degenerate Negro rhythm. He ultimately fled to America and found a new career crafting socially conscious Broadway shows. Fortunately, we have lots of early recordings that provide a reliable guide to the highly unusual performing style. The most renown and complete is a set of four Ultraphon 78s featuring 14 of the songs (albeit abridged) by Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife), Erich Ponto, and Kurt Gerron of the original cast, the original Lewis-Ruth Band under Theo Mackeben, and introductory narration prepared by Brecht. The playing is lean and tough, the vocals pointed and intense (except for Willi Trenk-Trebitsch’s perversely suave Mac). The best CD transfer is on Teldec 42663. The Ultraphon set was not made until December 1930. Arguably more authentic still are songs cut closer to the premiere by Harald Paulson, who created the role of Mac and who presents an intriguing range of styles, Carola Neher, the original Polly, who speaks more than sings, and Brecht himself, in a flat nasal bleating with ferociously rolled “R”s and farcically upbeat cabaret arrangements. Another primary source is a gritty 1931 movie by G.W. Pabst, shot on the same sets with wholly different casts in simultaneous French and German versions, the latter featuring Lenya as Jenny, Neher as Polly, and a debonair Rudolph Foerster as Mac. After selling the film rights, both authors sued � Brecht wanted to turn it into a Marxist manifesto (he lost) and Weill sought to prevent the use of outside music (he won, but the producers cut most of his songs anyway). Authentic or not, it’s a fascinating document, intensified by expressionist shot composition, garish lighting, and nervous camera movements. The ending is especially potent � a final alliance is celebrated among Police Chief Brown (power), arch-criminal Mac (brains), banker Polly (capital), and beggar-king Peachum (the masses) to consolidate their grip, both symbolic and literal, over London society. But then comes a chilling slap of social reality, turning abruptly from the laudatory merriment to a final shot of the truly downtrodden shuffling off into shadows, as a reprise of the “Moritat” rues that some dwell in darkness, others in light; you see those in brightness while the others drop from sight. ON BROADWAY World War II understandably dampened enthusiasm for German satire, but “The Threepenny Opera” soon resurfaced. At the 299-seat off-off-Broadway Theatre de Lys, an English adaptation by Marc Blitzstein played to rave reviews for six years, featuring Lenya and a cast of unknowns (including Bea Arthur). While musically vital, the lyrics were tamed considerably � in the original tango, Mac relates how when a sailor appeared he would get out of Jenny’s bed and have a beer while she earned her keep, but in the Blitzstein version, he gets up to pay the milkman while she is out working. The MGM cast recording LP (now on Polydor 820 260) sold a half-million copies and, aside from the bland translation, is vibrant and colorful. In 1976, Joseph Papp mounted a new production for the New York Shakespeare Festival that attempted to restore much of the raw power of the original conception. The cast album, featuring Raoul Julia as Mac (last on a Columbia LP), boasts wonderfully vivid and characterful playing and singing and preserves the fine English adaptation by Ralph Manheim and John Willett that closely approaches the ultimate sting of Brecht’s German. Among modern recordings, the “Dreigroschenoper” volume of Capriccio’s 1997 Kurt Weill Edition (60 058) is deadly dull, drained of any hint of style. A lavishly documented 1958 Columbia stereo set with Lenya (CBS 42367) strives for stylistic authenticity, although the deliberate pacing struggles to summon the work’s full spirit. A 1989 RIAS Berlin recording peopled with opera stars (London 430 075) seeks to restore Weill’s music to pre-eminence with exquisitely detailed accompaniment and often mines lodes of unsuspected splendor and beauty from the score. “The Threepenny Opera” may evoke Berlin in the 1920s, but its cynical distrust of human endeavor, its frantic search for meaning amid moral chaos, and its desperate anxiety for a secure future are far more current than we, on the eve of our critical election, might want to admit. Peter Gutmann is a partner at the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice and can be reached at [email protected]. Music articles by the author are posted on his Web site at www.classicalnotes.net.

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