To celebrate the end of the year, watch the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht 1929 collaboration, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Taking place in Alabama at the end of the roaring twenties, loggers from Alaska save up all of their money to travel to a sin city paradise, Mahagonny. It’s the city whose only purpose is pleasure, and as long as your pockets are lined with money, you can do no wrong. Really the only crime you can commit here is being poor, and when the main character Jimmy runs out of money, he stands trial. This is a crime so heinous he pays with his life. Even though others have money, certainly enough to save his life, they all refuse. When it comes to living in a capitalist society, the poor are truly worthless, a death of a poor man is no tragedy, just another day.
Is this a critique on American capitalism? A look at the waning days of the Weimar Republic? In the YouTube video (NSFW), it’s clear that this Berlin production chose to go with the last days of the Weimar Republic. A good clue is when the cast is visiting the brothels, (around 1:21.30) the choreography of women dancing the tango evokes of Marlene Dietrich’s escapades in Berlin during the 20s, when she danced the tango with another woman at a soiree. A dance so infamous it made it in G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film, Pandora’s Box. The German influence doesn’t stop at the tango, the last scene has Hitler stealing the microphone as the faceless ensemble march their way straight into fascism. A march so stylistic, beautiful, and disturbing that it seers an image into your brain.
The saxophone’s use in this opera revolves around the love scenes between Jimmy and Jenny. At the brothel scene, the tango is played by a trio of saxophones (soprano, alto, tenor) and violins. With Weill’s skill at popular music, the saxophones lyricism is a good compliment to the vocalists.
For further listening, the hits in this opera are many. “Alabama Song,” “Deep in Alaska,” “Havana Song,” “As you make your bed,” and “Nothing you can do to help a dead man.” This opera is a good introduction into the Second Viennese School as it contains the catchy melodies of Die Dreigroschenoper (The Three Penny Opera) and the complex harmonies and dissonance of Alban Berg’s Lulu. The orchestration has the kitchen sink approach, where you are serenaded by an out of tune piano, eating dinner to a zither and bandeneon, dancing to the saxophones, and cheering with a brass band at a boxing match. The opera is performed in both English and German. Watch the English version for the story, then watch the German for the symbolism.