by Steven Pisano
On Sunday evening, the good citizens of Bleecker Street were invaded by common street thugs, con artists, beggars, murderers, and whores from New Jersey. They hob-nobbed with criminal intent in a dark underground club. Liquor flowed freely at a bar in the back. The police were called, and the charming gangleader was sent to jail. But at the end of the night, the Village was safe again, and the riffraff had fled back across the river.
No, this wasn't an episode of The Sopranos. It was Rutgers Opera's production of The Threepenny Opera at Le Poisson Rouge. Unfortunately, this performance of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's classic musical had less the "pearly white" bite of a shark and more the toothless nuzzle of a teddy bear. Old Macheath, babe, shouldn't have kept his jackknife out of sight.
To be fair, this one-off production was staged not by professional singers, but by students at The Rutgers Opera Institute, established in 2011. But even in a friendly full-house seemingly packed with family and other familiars, there was scarce laughing at the satire, little shock at the moral debauchery, and only polite applause for the performances.
Maybe the world has just passed this once-controversial play by. The story of a small-time London criminal with a long rap sheet of robberies and murders is no match for the truly operatic stories of human cruelty, greed, and corruption that jostle for the front page every day. So what’s a thug got to do these days to get an audience’s attention?
As portrayed by Christopher Georgetti, Macheath is a lovable rogue. He drinks, he steals, he murders. It’s all in a day’s work. He also marries two women: Lucy Brown, the daughter of the Chief of Police, and Polly Peachum, the daughter of the ringleader of a citywide band of beggars. Peachum, sung by Brittany Stetson, is at first naive about Macheath's true nature, but soon catches on. Stetson, with her big eyes and clear voice, played the innocent well.
Bass Paul An gave a solid performance as Mr. JJ Peachum, gesticulating and mugging humorously as he sang. Despite his own criminal activity, Peachum is shocked by Polly's marriage to Macheath, who he sees as being even more morally depraved than he is.
The strongest performance of the night, however, was from mezzo-soprano Heather Flemming in the role of the prostitute Jenny Diver, Macheath's former lover who ultimately betrays him to the police. Flemming brought a delicious zest to her portrayal, particularly in her compelling rendition of "Pirate Jenny," a song originally made famous by Lotte Lenya. The song recounts a dream of homicidal revenge against the rich and privileged customers who've treated her like dirt - something we can all relate to.
Another standout was Caroline Braga's turn as Lucy Brown, offering a sultry and naughty counterpoint to Polly Peachum's purity. Also worthy of praise is the small on-stage orchestra, which played brightly under the direction of Kynan Johns, and the scruffy, ruffian costumes of Peter Fogel.
In the finale, it does not look good for Macheath. He is counting the minutes until the noose is slipped around his neck, and his jailers are not taking his bribes. But then, a miraculous messenger on horseback clip-clops onto the scene to announce that Macheath has been pardoned by the Queen, that he has been given a castle to live in, and that he will receive a handsome yearly pension of 10,000 pounds for life.
Such was the cynical view that Bertolt Brecht had of pre-Nazi Germany, where the criminals were the ones in charge. Not that things have changed much: in a country where you can rape, murder, and steal billions in a Ponzi scheme, then write a book about it or get your own reality TV show, perhaps it's no wonder the audience Sunday night didn't seem shocked.
More photos here.