In a study of empty promises, Kurt Weill’s cynical take on utopia is paired with Gian Carlo Menotti’s deceitful medium, highlighting the ways deception can lead to destruction and grief. The escape to a fascinating city of pleasure leads to disillusionment in Mahagonny: Ein Songspiel, which launched Weill’s rich collaboration with Bertolt Brecht; this “scenic cantata” is a precursor to The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. In Menotti’s tragic drama The Medium, an imagined dialogue with the departed provides temporary comfort for the bereaved at a séance—before an inexplicable, perhaps truly supernatural event becomes the catalyst for a slide into paranoia and madness. Carlos Ágreda conducts and Emma Griffin directs.
Fully staged production with members of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra. Mahagonny is sung in German and English with English supertitles and The Medium is sung in English with supertitles
Superficially, it is easier to identify the differences between Mahagonny: Ein Songspiel and The Medium than it is to note the common themes. Musically, Weill incorporates a signature stylistic stew of cabaret, jazz and splashes of atonality, resulting in the bitingly expressive voice that seems to be the very soundtrack of Weimar Germany. Menotti’s tone is more lyrical, even Italianate.
A bit of digging beneath the surface finds strong connections. Even the purely technical differences are not as glaring as they may seem at first hearing. Both composers were Europeans who spent important portions of their careers in America: Weill became a citizen in 1943; Menotti retained his Italian citizenship, but considered himself an American. Both aspired to appeal to wide audiences, and both turned their attention to Broadway-friendly theater compositions in the period after World War II. Dramatically, the two works are easier to link—thus, this presentation of the Songspiel as a prelude to the Menotti opera. The two works offer similar reflections on the human condition.
Weill conceived Mahagonny: Ein Songspiel as a study for The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, a large-scale opera that was premiered in 1930. It is often referred to as “Das kleine Mahagonny.” First performed in Baden-Baden in 1927, its original cast included the composer’s wife, the legendary Lotte Lenya. It is essentially a song cycle, or, as the composer called it, a “small-scale scenic cantata.” Two of the best-known numbers from the opera, “Alabama Song” and “Benares Song,” both originally written in English, make their first appearance in the Songspiel. Brecht’s words are pungent and suggestive, describing a kind of pilgrimage to the city of Mahagonny, enticed by whiskey and poker, as well as “good whores and good horseflesh.” The Medium, which premiered in New York City in 1946, describes the tawdry affairs of a mean-spirited alcoholic psychic, Madame Flora, who conducts séances designed to take advantage of parents who have lost children and are desperate to retain some connection to their dead offspring.
In both works, cynicism and false hope are defeated in the end. The Songspiel, though not an opera, lays out basic themes fleshed out in the subsequent musical drama, in which hedonism and avarice create mirages that ultimately dissolve. Despite the racy nature of the songs, Weill and Brecht are rather moralistic, invoking biblical themes (most obviously, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah).
The Medium also deals with this kind of craving for illusion, but adds some twists which imbue the narrative with philosophical subtlety. Menotti, as always a wonderful storyteller, does not exclude the possibility of supernatural phenomena, by leaving unresolved the question of whether or not Flora encounters some kind of specter. A more potent element of the drama involves her confession to her clients. Even as she throws their money back at them, they cannot let go of the possibility that they could still interact with their dead children. Her admission is not accepted. It is a powerful and perplexing intersection of stubborn hope, despair, and faith.
Monica, the daughter of the psychic, Madame Flora, is play-acting with Flora’s assistant, the mute boy Toby. Flora—whom Monica and Toby call “Baba”—arrives and immediately launches into a tirade against Toby, as Monica attempts to restrain her. They all then get ready for their customers: Mr. and Mrs. Gobineau, who are regulars; and Mrs. Nolan, who is new to the séance. All three share the tragedy of a dead child.
The séance begins. Flora begins to moan, and then scream, as Monica, impersonating the daughter of Mrs. Nolan, appears in a faint light and speaks to her. Even as Mr. Gobineau attempts to calm her, Mrs. Nolan becomes more and more agitated, nearly hysterical, as she leaps up towards Monica. As Mrs. Nolan finally returns to her seat in quiet despair, the séance continues with a supposed communication with the dead son of the Gobineaus. It is again Monica who acts as the two-year-old boy, producing childish giggles.
Suddenly, Flora gasps and clutches her throat, announcing in terror that someone had touched her. Her clients do not understand her panic, since they believe in the supernatural.
After the three parents leave, Flora becomes more unsettled and begins drinking. She announces to Monica that the séances must end and the money returned to her clients. Then, as she becomes drunker, she turns her wrath to Toby, accusing him of touching her during the séance in order scare her. Monica eventually calms her down, but Baba continues to hear voices, and prays for help.
Toby is presenting a puppet show to Monica. She imagines a dialogue between herself and the mute boy, as he declares his love for her and she reciprocates. Suddenly, Flora enters, intoxicated, as Monica runs out of the room. Flora speaks to Toby, at first calmly, asking him how he tricked her. Then, her fury mounting, she whips Toby, but is interrupted by the doorbell. It is the Gobineaus and Mrs. Nolan, arriving for another séance.
Flora tells them she is a fake, and the séances are over. They refuse to believe her, even after Monica demonstrates her voices. Flora tries to force the payments into their hands, but they will not take it back. As she explodes in a rage, they finally leave in great fright. Flora, despite Monica’s pleas, throws Toby out of the house. Now alone in the room, Flora continues to hear voices. She is drinking heavily. She passes out, in the midst of a prayer for forgiveness. As she sleeps, Toby sneaks back into the house, but cannot get into Monica’s room. He hides behind the puppet theater. The noise wakens Flora, who is startled and disoriented. She pulls a revolver out of a drawer and, seeing a moving curtain, asks who is there, but receives no reply. She shoots at the curtain, shouting “I’ve killed the ghost!” Monica enters the room, as Flora is bending over the dead Toby.
Carlos Ágreda, from Bogotá, Colombia, entered the Curtis Institute of Music in 2016. As a conducting fellow, he works closely with Curtis mentor conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. All students at Curtis receive merit-based, full-tuition scholarships, and Mr. Ágreda is the Rita E. Hauser Conducting Fellow.
Mr. Ágreda has worked with numerous orchestras, including the BBC Philharmonic and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, where he served as assistant conductor under Juanjo Mena, Vasily Petrenko, and Jac Van Steen. He has also conducted the Liverpool Mozart Orchestra, the Manchester Camerata, the Colombia National Symphony Orchestra, and the Royal Northern College of Music Concert Orchestra; and, as artistic director, the Orchestral Corporation of Colombia.
In 2017 Mr. Ágreda was a conducting fellow at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. In 2016 he conducted at the New Music North West Festival and led the conducting workshop at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, both in the U.K. In previous years, he won a competition for young Colombian conductors, allowing him to conduct the Colombia National Symphony Orchestra.
Mr. Ágreda has worked with such esteemed conductors as Mark Elder, Stéphane Denève, Mark Stringer, and Benjamin Zander. Prior to entering Curtis, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Corpas University in Colombia and a master’s degree from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester (U.K.). He began studying piano and composition at age 13 and conducting at age 17.
Emma Griffin is a theater and opera director based in Cincinnati and New York City. With a diverse background in theater, musical theater, and opera, she is a frequent collaborator on new music/theater pieces. Her opera credits include: La Fanciulla del West at Opera Colorado, the world premiere of Charpentier’s La Feste de Ruel with Catacoustic Consort, La bohème at Crested Butte Music Festival, Jake Hegge’s Three Decembers at Atlanta Opera, Don Giovanni at Boston Lyric Opera, and The Cunning Little Vixen and Les mamelles de Tirésias at Juilliard School. For Curtis Opera Theatre she has directed Wozzeck, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, The Rake’s Progress, Postcard from Morocco, The Cunning Little Vixen, and Die Zauberflöte.
Ms. Griffin was the artistic director of the OBIE-award winning Salt Theater in New York, where she directed Stage Door, The Cherry Orchard, Scenes from a Marriage, and Conquest of the Universe, among other productions. Her regional theater credits include Perseverance Theater, Geva Theater Center, Syracuse Stage, Southern Rep, Actor’s Express, Virginia Stage, and Williamstown Theater Festival.
In 2014, Ms. Griffin joined the faculty of the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati as the professor of opera stage direction.
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Mahagonny: Ein Songspiel is funded in part by the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, Inc., New York, NY.
The Curtis Opera Theatre season is sponsored by the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation and the Wyncote Foundation.