Wagner dreamed of opera as a grandly unified work of art fusing music, drama, and everything in between. Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill had other ideas. On Aug. 31, 1928, in Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, they placed a grenade deep in the Wagnerian gearwork — and then pulled the pin.
“The Threepenny Opera” has been flaunting its sultry modern ways ever since. In the intervening nine decades it has been staged countless times, re-envisioned and interpreted anew for each era.
Yet debates about what the work “really means” won’t end anytime soon because, by design, they can’t be settled: “Threepenny” is less a unified work of art than a collection of magnetic forces, attracting and repelling, often at the very same time. Adapted from John Gay’s 1728 “Beggar’s Opera,” the work thrusts us into a vision of London’s seething underclass on the eve of Queen Victoria’s coronation. In Brecht’s hands, the tale becomes a searing indictment of a society that, with unspeakable cruelty, immiserates the masses and then judges them harshly for failing to live up to its own moral code. But Kurt Weill’s jazzy, sensual score has a mind of its own, at once bitter parody and suave seduction. “The cheerful melodies and the burgeoning desperation,” tallied one early observer; viewers remain ever-suspended between the two.
And it is within these liminal spaces that, it seems, James Darrah’s new production for Boston Lyric Opera seeks to build its home. Declining to reach for either period anchoring or present-day topicality, Darrah has given BLO an abstract and stylized “Threepenny,” which opened Friday night at the Huntington Avenue Theatre. The action takes place “sometime and somewhere in an imagined London.” Julia Noulin-Mérat’s spare set traffics in squares and cubes. Pablo Santiago’s stark lighting sends search beams into the angular abyss.
In advance interviews, Darrah spoke of his intention to celebrate the work’s core ambiguity, and this production allows him to do just that, albeit ultimately with mixed results. In some ways, his stripped-down approach allows this “Threepenny” to speak without distraction. But by hovering so abstractly in space and time, this staging sacrifices some of the work’s storied grittiness and bite. It also seems to not have fully grappled with the question of how to make compelling, generative use of the extraordinary tensions between Brecht’s words and Weill’s music.
Among Friday’s capable cast, James Maddalena was a delectably dark Mr. Peachum, shamelessly trading on human sympathy to exploit the toils of London’s beggars. Michelle Trainor was a formidable Mrs. Peachum, though her Brechtian assaults on audience sensibilities often used a hammer where a scalpel might have been more effective. Their daughter Polly’s seduction by the notorious gangster Macheath (Mack the Knife) of course sets the entire plot in motion. And the role of Polly was performed with conviction by Kelly Kaduce, even if her vocalism proved more persuasive than some of the marionette-like body language it seems she was asked to deploy. Christopher Burchett’s Macheath deftly combined menace and raffish charm. Daniel Belcher as Tiger Brown, the feeble chief of police, and Chelsea Basler as his daughter Lucy, both sang well. And Renée Tatum brought a winning sense of dignity and warmth to the role of Jenny, Mack’s old flame.
BLO is using Michael Feingold’s English translation of the original German text; even so, supertitles for the songs would have helped. Happily, with music director David Angus in the pit, Weill’s cunningly “simple” music largely hits its mark. It also has a way of remaining lodged in the mind, long after the curtain has fallen.
THE THREEPENNY OPERA
Presented by Boston Lyric Opera
At Huntington Avenue Theatre, through March 25. 617-542-4912, www.blo.org