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June 03, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, June 03, 2005

West Bay ends season with feisty, biting 'Threepenny Opera' West Bay ends season with feisty, biting 'Threepenny Opera' (June 03, 2005)

By Mort Levine

One of the most important pieces of musical theater of the 20th century holds forth this weekend as West Bay Opera completes its 49th year with a revival of Kurt Weill's musical gem, "The Threepenny Opera."

Bertolt Brecht's satirical and obscene libretto challenges the audience, which must look at the historical roots of the opera penned in the misery of the decimated post-World War I Germany. The collaborators rewrote a 1720s British hit, "The Beggar's Opera," by John Gay, a pastiche of folk tunes sung with anti-establishment lyrics.

But there is nothing quite like "Threepenny" in the entire repertory of opera, or musical comedy. Weill, a master of hauntingly beautiful and catchy tunes, chose to write in the style of the Berlin cabaret -- think of the Broadway hit play of the same name. Whether it is an opera, a play, a musical comedy or just a piece of nightclub agit-propaganda will be argued during the two intermissions, but the audience will not be left unaffected.

On top of the brain-fodder, it will provide an array of sing-able tunes. One of them turned into record-gold for Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, who never got to play the lead in the opera. Wonder why some enterprising producer never took up that idea.

West Bay's version at the Lucy Stern Theatre in Palo Alto maintains its bite and sexiness through the clever translation by composer Marc Blitzstein, which was created for the 1954 revival in New York. Director Kenneth Tigar, a scholar in German literature as well as a man of the theater here and in Europe, gave his production an added up-to-date feistiness as well through projections of scenes of America's current experiences in Iraq.

Set in the underworld of London's slum during Queen Victoria's time, the action revolves around a gang leader-Don Juan named Macheath (tenor Harold Gray Meers), who charms everyone, including the police commissioner (sung by baritone Otak Jump). The simple story tells about Macheath's seduction of Polly, the pretty daughter of J. J. Peacham, king of the beggars of London, and his wife, sung by operatic veteran mezzo Donna Olson.

The Peacham role, normally peripheral, was made central by the magnetic power of bass-baritone Scott Bearden's rendition. He has created a number of stellar interpretations of major baritone roles, including Falstaff, Rigoletto, Dr. Dulcamara and others to which he now can add Jonathan Jeremiah Peacham.

Saundra DeAthos, who gave an outstanding performance in the title role of West Bay's previous production, Lucia di Lammermoor, sings the romantic female lead who gets to take over the mob when Macheath is jailed to be hanged for his long list of crimes.

The 10-piece band on the stage is hidden from the audience by props but the sound is brilliantly interwoven with the voices. Barbara Day Turner, talented founder-conductor of the San Jose Chamber Orchestra and an avatar of contemporary music, brought a unique sensibility to the ironic and musical score, which shifted in a variety of moods from lushly romantic to slashing nastiness.

Making his debut with West Bay Opera was baritone Noel Anthony, who took on the narrator role; alternately a street singer, a policeman, a beggar, he carries along the tale through its eight scenes. Director Tigar chose to insert ample dialogue in spoken English, which at times was hard to follow in the higher voices. The sung lyrics, also in English, have projected supertitles.

There were other strong performances by some of Macheath's girls. Jenny Diver is played by Ariela Morgenstern, with a smoky, cabaret mezzo soprano sound that was perfect for the role. Lucy Brown, another paramour, has a key aria, Barbara's song, in which she tells of the number of lovers she has said "sorry" to.

"Threepenny Opera" isn't family fare with its bawdy, sexual references and Marxist raillery, but it is a stimulating experience in an art form that Brecht and Weill shaped into their very own and hasn't been equaled over the 80 years since it captivated Germany -- at least until Hitler came along.

Information

"Threepenny Opera" will continue at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 3 and 4; and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 5. Tickets or more information: 424-9999; or wbopera.org.


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