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Mack the Knife’s Whores, Crooks Roil Comedie-Francaise: Review

A scene from "The Threepenny Opera" by Brecht-Weill. The opera is a production of the Comedie-Francaise which is in repertory through July 19. Photographer: Brigitte Enguerand/Comedie-Francaise via Bloomberg

April 18 (Bloomberg) -- “What is robbing a bank compared to founding a bank?”

Amid the current turmoil on the financial markets, many people may agree that Mack the Knife, the hero of “The Threepenny Opera,” has a point.

No wonder the Comedie-Francaise uses the quip as a motto for its new production. It’s the first production of this work in the company’s 330-year history, though not its first staging of a Brecht play.

Brecht has been a cult figure in France for years -- not least because of the Communist sympathies of the Paris intelligentsia. The first performance of the “Opera de Quat’Sous” in Paris took place in 1930, only two years after the Berlin premiere.

In 1931, the play was made into a movie in German and French versions, both directed by G.W. Pabst.

After the Berlin premiere, the Red Flag, the mouthpiece of the German Communist Party, condemned the production as “culinary theater, totally lacking in concrete social awareness.”

The party watchdogs must have been appalled by Kurt Weill’s witty score, mixing Baroque elements, folk ballads and fashionable dances of the day. Thanks to Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and others, Weill’s catchy tunes have become popular standards.

Whether those who innocently hum along are aware of the fact that the Ballad of Mack the Knife glorifies a rapist, child molester and serial killer is another question.

Musical Obscenity

The challenge for any new production is to find the right balance between Weill’s musical demands and Brecht’s social satire and cheerful obscenity. The Comedie-Francaise is only partially successful.

The most convincing contribution comes from the pit. Bruno Fontaine conducts his 13 musicians with admirable clarity and rhythmic zest.

Laurent Pelly, the director, has won plaudits for his productions of Offenbach operettas. Brecht had updated his model, John Gay’s 1728 “The Beggar’s Opera” to the Roaring Twenties. Pelly updates it again to present-day Britain.

Chantal Thomas’s half-abstract sets only indicate what we should imagine -- the office of Peachum, the beggar king; the garage in which Polly, Peachum’s daughter, and Mack get married; the brothel in Tunbridge, Mack’s favorite hangout; the Old Bailey.

So far, so good.

Cabaret Style

The problems start with the actors. As you can hear on old recordings, Weill had performers with operetta or cabaret experience in mind, personified by his wife, Lotte Lenya, who later repeated her success as Jenny, the whore, in New York.

Some of the Comediens Francais, as they are called, do have vocal talent. In most cases, though, their singing is closer to shouting.

More crucially, what’s lacking is the nonchalance and, in the case of Mack (Thierry Hancisse), the roguish charisma that makes the lurid story so hilarious.

If you’re curious to find out how the old warhorse sounds in French, go see it by all means. If you want to know what the real thing looks like, watch Pabst’s movie, one of the masterpieces of Germany’s Weimar cinema.

Rating: **1/2.

“L’Opera de Quat’Sous” is in repertory through July 19. Information: http://www.comedie-francaise.fr or (from France only) 08-2510-1680. The production is supported by Societe Generale Private Banking, the Fondation Jacques Toja Pour le Theatre and France Telecom SA’s Fondation Orange.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****             Outstanding
***              Good
**               Average
*                Poor
(No stars)       Worthless

To contact the writer on the story: Jorg von Uthmann in Paris at uthmann@wanadoo.fr.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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