Based on John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera of 1728 (itself a satire on the Italian opera seria so popular in 18th-century London) and transported to the late 1800s, it became an attack by the “proletarian world” on the “corrupt middle-class.” The Threepenny Opera is, therefore, a Marxist critique of the capitalist world.
Die Dreigroschenoper (to give it its German title) was a milestone of 20th century musical theater incorporating a sharp political perspective and the sound of 1920s Berlin dance bands and cabaret. Weill’s sharp harmonies and Brecht’s biting texts created a revolutionary new genre that inspired such subsequent hits as Cabaret, Chicago, and Urinetown.
What we saw last night, though, was a ballet. Given that Weill’s and Brecht’s original work is so closely identified with the songs it contains (“Mack the Knife” being the most famous), I was curious to see how the work would be adapted to a dance piece.
The result was very successful. While each act opened with a song from the opera, sung live, the story of Macheath/Mackie Messer/Mack the Knife and his entanglements with Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, controller of all of London’s beggars, was played out wordlessly in a modern ballet style that did a fine job incorporating the Epic Theater elements so crucial to Brecht.
Epic Theatre sought to do away with the tradition of theatrical illusion. The “theater of illusions,” as anti-realists such as Brecht termed it, allowed the audience to comfortably and passively view a production without being changed by it. Brecht wanted to use drama to invoke social change, to shake his audiences out of their complacency and expect more from the theater than just entertainment. To that end, The Threepenny Opera used “alienating” devices, such as placards, asides to the audience, projected images, discordant music and lighting, and disconnected episodes to frustrate the audience’s expectations for simple entertainment.
All of these alienating elements were incorporated into the Teatro Filarmonico’s L’Opera da Tre Soldi; there were scene changes incorporated into the production; placards and billboards announcing venues and moralizing messages; the music director in the pit was costumed and served as one of the characters; and musicians left the pit to join the dancers on stage throughout.
While we may not have heard the lyrics to such wonderfully titled songs from the original as “Pirate Jenny,” “The Song of Why Human Effort is Always Futile,” or “The Ballad of the Pleasant Life,” the choreography, sets, costumes and performers ingeniously captured the spirit of Weill’s and Brecht’s magnum opus, and reminded us that perhaps not all human effort is futile.