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Thursday, November 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 12.0° F  Fair
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Madison Opera's Threepenny Opera entertains brilliantly
American Players Theatre's James DeVita and Tracy Michelle Arnold star in Madison Opera's <i>The Threepenny Opera</i>.
American Players Theatre's James DeVita and Tracy Michelle Arnold star in Madison Opera's The Threepenny Opera.

The Madison Opera has established the practice of interpolating, between its large autumn and spring productions in Overture Hall, a smaller-scale mid-winter work in the Overture Playhouse. This season, for what proves the company's last production over which Allan Naplan presides as general director before his departure to Minneapolis, the offering is The Threepenny Opera of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, in the English adaptation by Marc Blitzstein.

The Threepenny Opera is one of those rare examples of the transformation of a great theatrical work from one era into a successful work of a later era. The model for Brecht and Weill was The Beggar's Opera, created in 1728 by writer John Gay and theatrical manager John Rich as the pioneering example of the English ballad opera. Set in an inverted world of poverty and criminals, this "Newgate pastorale" (so dubbed after the main London prison) was meant to satirize the politics and society of Georgian England, as well as the craze for Italian opera, represented mostly by Handel. Its verses were set to well-known melodies of the day, all cast in a form anticipating what would come to be known as "the musical comedy."

Brecht, with his posturing Marxism, appreciated Gay's sharp social criticism, and was particularly impressed by Frederick Austin's 1920 modernized arrangement of The Beggar's Opera in London. Joined by the rising theater musician Weill, Brecht created a gloss on the original, using essentially the same characters, but as awkwardly relocated in Victorian England, while his German verses and dialogue were loaded with diatribes against the economy and society of Weimar Germany. Weill (who actually used one of the original English tunes in his first number) matched Brecht's tone with the brusque song style and blatantly jazzy instrumentation we would now identify as a cabaret idiom.

The original production of 1928 (exactly two centuries after Gay's premiere) was a smash hit, coming on the fault line between the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, though revivals in Germany were soon quashed by the rise of the Nazi regime. Meanwhile the American composer -- and ideological leftist -- Marc Blitzstein developed his own English-language adaptation of the Brecht/Weill work, and in 1954 this was given a production in Greenwich Village that brought The Threepenny Opera into a vibrant life of its own in the USA.

Blitzstein's translation may have softened Brecht's venom slightly, but it remains very effective in performance, and is the wise choice, among alternatives, for this production. Along the way, Blitzstein made some shifts in which songs went to which character, and these are sorted out sensibly here. My one regret is that the hilariously sarcastic "Wedding Song," delivered by members of Macheath's criminal gang, is reduced to almost nothing.

Weill's music is only occasionally operatic, and then to satiric effect. Understandably, most of the members of this Madison Opera cast are veterans of musical theater rather than classical practice. The exception is Alicia Berneche in the soubrette role of Polly Peacham: she has a lovely soprano voice, but not always effective diction.

On the other hand, two leading parts are taken by actors familiar to patrons of American Players Theatre. James DeVita, a versatile and always fascinating actor, makes his musical debut by not really singing very much, but using pitched declamation in a swaggering characterization of the antihero, the virtuosic criminal Captain Macheath. Quite surpassing him, however, is APT's Tracy Michelle Arnold as Jenny Diver, the grim fallen woman who betrays Macheath (a role designed for Weill's wife, Lotte Lenya): Arnold gives a forceful portrayal, powerfully sung and with ringingly clear diction.

Also good in that department are Amy Welk and David Barron as Mrs. and Mr. Peacham, the kingpins of the London underground. On the other hand, Edward Marion, as the street singer-narrator, has an appealing voice that simply cannot carry over the (backstage) pit orchestra.

Peter Harrison's use of hangings and moveable frames replaces a formal set with great flexibility, and these elements are manipulated with considerable virtuosity in the imaginative stage direction of Dorothy Danner. Karen Brown-Larimore's costumes are full of clever touches. On opening night there were some muddled lighting cues, presumably to be worked out thereafter.

Brecht's social and economic preachment remains stingingly relevant to our time, and barely a few overt topical references were needed to back up the point. This Threepenny Opera is a provocative but, above all, lively and thoroughly entertaining presentation. It is clearly the most successful and brilliant of the mid-season mini-productions that the Madison Opera has brought us. And it demonstrates the debt we owe to the directorship of Allan Naplan.

It runs through Feb. 12. Many performances are sold out.

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