Madison Opera’s “Threepenny Opera” Worth a Few Quid

Photo by Alan Manis

Under Allan Naplan’s tenure as General Director, Madison Opera has developed a nifty tradition of placing the second of their three seasonal productions in the 340-seat Playhouse at the Overture Center. It gives the company an opportunity to stage a work — definitively operatic or not — that not only would be problematic in Overture Hall, but benefits greatly from the more intimate venue.

Having scored successes the last two seasons with Copland’s The Tender Land and Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, Naplan oversaw a production of Kurt Weill’s 1928 crossover work, The Threepenny Opera.

So here’s the good news and the bad news: the production is full of strong contributions, and still manages to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts, but all seven performances were sold out before last Friday’s opening.

In a performance full of Madison Opera debuts, undoubtedly the most important was that of director Dorothy Danner. Unlike a theater or film director who decides to try their hand at opera of some sort, Danner’s wide-ranging background as performer, and more importantly director, of over two hundred productions of plays, musicals, operettas and opera, makes her an ideal candidate for such a seminal work as Threepenny. She’s not afraid to lighten the mood with Keystone Kops-like antics, and indeed, much of the action is highly physical. But she is quick to use those moments of light only to reveal the pervasive darkness of the milieu: the underbelly of Victorian London (indeed on the verge of her Highness’ coronation), a dark, desperate place of beggars, prostitutes, cutthroats and corrupt policemen.

Danner is critically aided in this approach by the endless variations of dingy poverty and faux elegance in the costume designs of Karen Brown-Larimore. Likewise, the lighting (or should we say darkening) effects of John G. Frautschy play a key role, on occasion even producing fleeting but telling moments akin to film noir.

Musically the question of the night was: can James DeVita sing? The short answer is a qualified “yes.” In the first place, Threepenny is not mainstream opera because there is far more spoken dialogue than singing, and with its 1928 cabaret-tinged Berlin roots and Bertolt Brecht libretto, the sensibility is obviously far removed from Mozart or Verdi. The heart of DeVita’s character, Macheath (the “Mack” of “Mack the Knife”), is that of the lovable villain, and DeVita’s 16-year career at American Players Theatre was more than enough resumé for the acting part of the gig. His first foray with “Love Song” revealed a touch of insecurity, and the later “Ballad of the Easy Life” brought to mind Rex Harrison’s technique of how to sing without singing. But that quality lies largely in the song itself, and in “Tango Ballad” and elsewhere, DeVita gave evidence that he has taken a new direction in his stage career that should continue to bear fruit.

Photo by Alan Manis

The three young ladies who are all in and out of love with the inconstant Macheath were the real stars of the show, vocally and otherwise. Alicia Berneche has the operatic track record to tackle the work’s most vocally demanding role of Polly, and Liz Cassarino, a promising graduate student at UW Madison, was a superb match for Berneche vocally and in her acting in the role of Lucy. Tracy Michelle Arnold, another veteran of APT, was the sinuous, seductive and pragmatic prostitute, Jenny.

But without the substantial contributions of the rest of a large ensemble cast, the night would have remained intermittent highlights. Certainly general kudos at least have to go out to the veteran leadership of David Barron, Amy Welk and Edward Marion.

One of the only disappointments was the inability to observe the small but effective band of eight players, led by Artistic Director John DeMain from the piano and synthesizer. It’s hard not to capture the right sound of this work with that kind of leadership, and playing from such local luminaries as Les Thimmig on reeds.

Photo by Alan Manis

The announcement that the run was sold out had been made earlier, and so I was a bit surprised to find myself next to an empty seat — only to have it occupied moments before the downbeat by General Director Allan Naplan. He left just as quickly at intermission and the show’s close, so let me say here what so many have been saying: Thank you sir, for what you have helped to build here at Madison Opera. We wish you well as you move up the map, geographically and operatically. We can only hope that your successor builds upon the legacy you leave behind.

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