Operas expose seedy London and a family farm

`Threepenny Opera' and `The Tender Land'

Stage: theater, music, dance

March 25, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

If you're craving entertainment that transports you to a charming world where all is peace and order, where everyone gets exactly what they desire, without any complications - well, good luck. If you're more of a realist or, better yet, if you have an ironic streak and a taste more for the bittersweet than the sweet, two Baltimore stages are serving up some hearty fare.

For acidic satire - and terrific tunes - it's still hard to beat the 1928 German play with music called The Threepenny Opera, which is being revived by Peabody Chamber Opera at the Theatre Project. The score by Kurt Weill and the words by Bertolt Brecht sizzle with keen insights into the darker corners of the human condition, indelibly encapsulated by the title character, Mack the Knife, and his dangerously catching ballad. Murder, rape, prostitution, bribery - you name it, it's all here in this work, but every vice has its distinctive musical charm as Brecht and Weill turn theatrical conventions and expectations on their ear.

The Threepenny Opera is set in a seedy side of London, like the hit of the English theater season of 1728 that inspired it, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. But this creation remains very German at its core. And it perfectly symbolizes the wildly creative days of the Weimar Republic, those days when artists were stretching in one heady direction and assorted malcontents were itching to stretch in another under what would become the banner of National Socialism. With chilling accuracy, Brecht's words for the Act 2 finale laid it all bare: "What keeps mankind alive? The fact that millions are daily tortured, stifled, punished, silenced, oppressed. Mankind keeps alive thanks to its brilliance in keeping its humanity repressed."

Of course, this show takes aim at many targets; there's enough satire to go around for everybody. "It's still relevant," says Roger Brunyate, director for the Peabody Opera production. "If Brecht were alive today, I'm sure he would have quite a few things to say about the rich robbing from the poor, which is one of the things the show is about. He and Weill were terribly good at making catchy protest songs."

For this staging in the Theatre Project's close-to-the-action space, Brunyate initially aimed to "play the whole thing very much for farce," but he has been focusing on "making the farce more biting." Helping that aim will be a fairly recent translation of the original German text that the director finds "very faithful to the deliberately inelegant imagery of Brecht - not four-letter words, but five-letter words. What's wonderful about this piece," he says, "is that it is really in-your-face, and actually quite raunchy. A production needs to have that exuberant, but uncomfortable, quality."

As a companion piece, Peabody is presenting a cabaret show, also at the Theatre Project, picking up on the whole decadent Berlin night club scene that The Threepenny Opera can't help but conjure. Songs by two composers, Weill and Frenchman Jacques Brel, will be the focus, sung by Alisa Grundmann and Ryan de Ryke, with pianist Jerome Tan.

The theme of the show's first part is "The Love of War," with the incisive anti-war songs of both composers - "Some biting, some more subtly disturbing," Brunyate says. In the second, semi-staged part, "The War of Love," the two singers will use songs to portray a couple in various stages of a relationship, one that "heats up, turns nasty and ends with some sort of reconciliation," the director says.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away at the Great Hall of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Opera Vivente will be delving into another complicated relationship - several, actually - in a rare production of Aaron Copland's The Tender Land. This work from 1954 is quintessentially Copland-esque in sound and subject matter, reflecting the same synthesis of American musical idioms and concern for common folk that make his ballets so indelible.

The setting is a Midwestern farm at harvest time during the 1930s. The family unit - a mother, two daughters and a grandfather - is shaken up by the hiring of two itinerant workers. The elder daughter, Laurie, just graduating from high school, discovers a longing not just for love, but freedom. Neither goal will be easily realized.

"Being an English-language company, we were bound to be doing this work at some point," says Opera Vivente artistic and stage director John Bowen. "But I also saw The Tender Land as a good pairing with Massenet's Werther, which opened our season. Both of them center [on] a female character who is torn between familial duty and social station on the one hand, and what her heart is telling her on the other."

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