When The Atlanta Opera bravely nudged into the thick of Covid to resume, safely, live performances, the double bill they chose last spring — The Threepenny Carmen and The Threepenny Opera — made perfect thematic sense. In their time, both works were considered scandalous. Instead of dukes and duchesses, their subjects were determinedly blue-collar and criminal class.
Georges Bizet’s Carmen, a traditional French opera (at least where the music is concerned), had the audacity to focus on, rather than traditional, tragically crossed aristocratic lovers, a commonplace soldier and the working girl who seduced him (or whom he stalked, take your pick). Likewise, the songspiel Threepenny Opera, adapted by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill from John Gay’s 1728 Beggar’s Opera, centered on — well, the title of both versions tells you all you need to know. These are street people, murderers, whores — only, you know, singing.
The heroine of Bizet’s 1875 opera is a gleeful maneater who seems to be rushing to her doom as swiftly as to the next man’s crotch. And Brecht/Weill’s 1928 operetta, featuring a thief and killer as its antihero (Mack the Knife, heard of him?), was a conscious deconstruction of highfalutin opera and the notion of “polite” society. All was in the service of critiquing capitalism and creating what was known as the alienation effect, reminding audiences that they weren’t seeing representational life onstage but consciously crafted, purposefully didactic theater.
Produced by The Atlanta Opera as part of the Big Tent series last May, staged outside the Cobb Energy Arts Centre and now streaming on The Atlanta Opera’s website, the Threepenny versions of both shows share sociocultural common ground. But beyond that, they part ways. While I was more excited about one over the other before I watched, my expectations were upended.
Tomer Zvulun directed both of them onstage/in the tent, while Felipe Barral, an ArtsATL contributor, directed, produced and edited them for the online experience. Both shows are admirably done, but I’d only be tempted to watch one of them again. The core texts of each has been truncated and adapted. Atlanta theater legend, and a friend of mine, Tom Key serves as an emcee in each, speaking directly to the camera to bridge leaps in the narrative gaps.
Carmen is such a chestnut, almost anyone could hum the notes of its many arias, even if they didn’t know the source material. Politically, the plot is problematic as hell. But hey, that’s opera for you. In Carmen, Key plays Lilas Pastia. In this updated version, which transports the story from 19th century Spain to present-day Texas, he’s the overseer of the Threepenny Tavern. (Same tent, same charmingly bare-bones set for both shows.) In a fire-and-brimstone fury that is unusual for the actor, he warns us of the horrific lure of the sexy dynamo called Carmen. (Key’s direct-address works better in Carmen than it does in Threepenny, where it feels like a hasty Band-Aid to connect scenes.)
Tiny but full-voiced and physically committed, Megan Marino’s Carmen is a strong magnet at the show’s center. I’m not a music critic, so I keep my opinions within the barriers of my knowledge as a theater/film lover. Also, I’m hesitant to write about physical attributes of any actor, but Marino’s petiteness juxtaposed with the fullness of her voice and performance were a striking mix for me.
Like the rest of the cast, she has to sing mostly masked, though this staging allows her and others to enter a plastic-sheathed chamber to sing without facial covering at select moments. She has a great voice, to my ears anyway. So does Richard Trey Smagur as Don Jose, in this version a young, dumb cop who falls prey to her. (His singing voice makes amends for some stiffness in his acting.) Also in gorgeous voice is Jasmine Habersham as Micaëla, Jose’s would-be fiancée. Michael Mayes as Escamillo, not a bullfighter here but a popular crooner famous for singing a toreador, is fun. (One drawback: videographer Barral, who subtly superimposes images on the live action throughout, overdoes it with footage of Escamillo near show’s end, muddying its emotional climax.)
This is the show I’d happily stream again. Of the two, I was looking forward more to Threepenny Opera, as a one-time theater student who loved the provocations and innovations of 20th century creators like Brecht, Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, etc. The Atlanta Opera’s production is watchable, but don’t boost your hopes too high.
Here, Jay Hunter Morris plays crime lord Macheath, who secretly marries Polly (Kelly Kaduce), daughter of Mr. Peachum (Kevin Burdette), the leader of the unionized beggars of London. That Macheath is already multiple-times married doesn’t matter so much as Peachum’s determination to turn him in to crooked cop Tiger Brown (Joshua Conyers) for poaching his daughter.
In addition to “Mack the Knife,” memorable songs here include Polly’s rendition of the revenge fantasy “Pirate Jenny.” But Opera is not the sort of melodious event that sweeps you away. That was Brecht and Weill’s intent. Their now-classic alienation effects also include giant mesh heads the actors occasionally wear, and a pimp-and-beggar chorus of puppets.
When I began to write about Atlanta theater in the 1980s, it seemed I was the only critic who approached the Center for Puppetry Arts with the seriousness the institution deserved. Some of the most striking theatrical experiences of my early days happened there. So I’m sad to say that the puppetry on display in Threepenny Opera feels second-hand as onstage puppeteers manipulate three-foot-tall, inexpressive dolls behind the live actors. The Center’s Jason Himes and longtime puppetry genius Jon Ludwig are involved with the production, but the result is a misfire.
Though the cloth masks they wear are cleverly illustrated with leering lips or untrustworthy smiles suiting their characters, the actors here never sing barefaced, as they do in Carmen. That keeps the show impersonal in a way that’s probably not intended. Nevertheless, all respect goes to The Atlanta Opera for finding a way to present live performances in a spring that, then, looked like the end of a long and terrible year-plus of the Covid nightmare. As hospitalizations and deaths mount again, arts institutions are struggling with the same obstacles all over. Here’s hoping for a safer autumn, for artists and audiences alike.