BBC Radio 3, 18 October 2009
On the face of it, Nadia Molinari's revival had everything going for
it - a talented cast of actor-singers, supported by the BBC Philharmonic under H. K. Gruber's enthusiastic direction. The
songs were enthusiastically rendered; the orchestral arrangements were consistently discordant in an attempt to create a verfremdungseffekt
(a sense of alienation), enabling listeners to reflect on the play's political stance.
That message emerged loud and clear, as we were drawn into the amoral world of Victorian
London, whose inhabitants cared only for themselves, and who were more than ready to exploit others in pursuit of their aims.
Macheath (Joseph Milson) strode through the performance like a colossus - although condemned to die for his criminal activities,
he consistently escaped punishment by means of bare-faced cunning and sheer cheek. By comparison the forces of law, represented
by Tiger Brown (Conrad Nelson) paled into insignificance. The Peachums were equally rapacious: Mr. Peachum (Zubin Varla) made
every effort to marry his daughter off to the wealthiest suitor, while Polly herself (Ellen Rhys) bestowed her favours to
the highest bidder.
At the same time Molinari suggested through Weill's songs that the protagonists'
behaviour had been shaped by circumstance. In a dog-eat-dog world of unrestrained capitalism, everyone had to learn how to
exploit everyone else in order to survive. Such virtues as friendship, loyalty or trust counted for nothing: people had to
look after themselves. This is precisely Brecht's point, as he adapts John Gay's eighteenth century classic The Beggar's
Opera in an attempt to comment on capitalism and its outcomes in the wake of the Great Depression.
So why didn't I enjoy this revival more? Maybe it was because of its strident tone:
Brecht's social criticism kept being rammed home at every possible opportunity. Ultimately I felt I was listening to an extended
piece of agit-prop. Moreover I doubted whether The Threepenny Opera actually works as a musical drama: Kurt Weill's
songs often appear intrusive, holding up the dramatic action and sometimes making listeners feel impatient. Perhaps this
is Brecht's point; by interrupting the flow of the performance, we are prevented from identifying with any of the protagonists.
However the verfremdungseffekt can often become irritaing (as was the case in Molinari's revival).
Nonetheless there were incidental pleasures, such as listening to the hit song "Mack
the Knife" on at least two occasions.