Though bloodthirsty slashing might be what links together Mack the Knife and sharks, the same cannot be said for Boston Lyric Opera’s toothless production of “The Threepenny Opera,” which opened its limited engagement at the Huntington Theatre on March 16. Eschewing the acerbic, often discordant, sharpness required to mount the famed Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht collaboration in favor of a smoother, more classically operatic quality, the production seems less intent on shaking up the social and theatrical status quo than presenting its well-heeled patrons a harmless, if zingy, entertainment.
Despite the mostly capable cast’s effort, director James Darrah fails to bring together their performances into a cohesive whole, with characters seeming to inhabit entirely different worlds, none of which adhere to the work’s satirical tone. Written in interwar Germany to reflect that society’s growing issues with capitalism, the play remains one of the most caustic assaults on the bourgeois ever to be staged, with each character, line and action cleverly outlining their role in a broken society. Here, however, they seem only to be outlining the importance of a theatre production having its team on the same page.
Following the grotesque exploits of criminal-about-town Mack the Knife in the days before Queen Victoria’s coronation, “Threepenny” offers a cast of characters across social castes, each rotten to their core by a world designed to drain beings of their humanity. That internal degradation that runs through this dreary vision of 19th century London connects not only the characters to each other, but to our own jaded cynicism, and allows actors to play with archetypes to lively effect. What this production offers, instead, is a stranded cast of opera singers in a ruthless, wordy act of protest with more use for enunciators than belters.
Inexplicably staged in what can only be described as an empty 1950s concert hall, it’s not only Darrah’s troupe of actors apparently inhabiting different worlds, – an actor’s director, he is not – the production as a whole is dangerously detached from its roots, and not in an admirable, ‘modern’ interpretation. Brothels that should reek of squalor have women in nice silk dresses; sycophants whose mendacity should be obvious display zero agency of their own; Mack’s lovers, whose wit and grit should match their surroundings, are airheads interested only in keeping their man. These details show a disregard for Brecht’s work that leave one wondering why it was bothered to be restaged, if not to be shown to an audience completely afraid of questions of ethics and guilt.
It’s hard to label this a total failure; the work is still marvelously scored and anyone unfamiliar with the plot and its characters is bound to find joy – if not just contemporary relevance – in its twisted machinations. But a work that gleefully declares itself as cheap and vulgar (“Threepenny”) should never feel as if it was polished for a pleasant after-dinner diversion but rather, follow the advice of Jenny, one of the prostitutes, in “turning in to the harbor, shooting guns from the bow.”