Recent News
Keith Lockhart
Vienna Boys Choir
Classical Album of the Week: Vienna Boys Choir Sings Strauss
JoAnn Falletta, Mariss Jansons, David Alan Miller, Peter Oundjian, Patrick Summers, Alexandre Tharaud, Magos Herrera & Brooklyn Rider , Mason Bates, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Munich , Academy of St Martin in the Fields , Les Violons du Roy , Anthony Roth Costanzo, Nathan Gunn
2019 Grammy Nominees
Grammy Awards
New York Philharmonic String Quartet , Yefim Bronfman
Bronfman, NY Philharmonic Quartet impress at Linton Series
Cincinnati Business Courier
Aaron Diehl
Pianist Diehl in jazz trio plays varied concert in Palm Beach
Palm Beach Daily News
Julian Wachner
This Is the Best ‘Messiah’ in New York
The New York Times
Sir Andrew Davis
ELGAR The Music Makers. The Spirit of England (Davis)
Chanticleer Christmas concert, 11/30/18
Ward Stare
Twin pianists deliver impeccable style in ‘Perfect Pairs’ concert
Sarasota Herald Tribune
Richard Kaufman
Broadway World

News archive »

Singing the Praises of Greed and Naked Capitalism

Erik Nielsen
The New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini

LENOX, Mass. — In recent years nothing has inspired the select young singers and instrumentalists of the Tanglewood Music Center, the prestigious training institute run by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at its summer home here, more than working with James Levine on challenging operatic repertory.

So it was a major disappointment when emergency surgery forced Mr. Levine to withdraw from most of his commitments at Tanglewood this summer, including a full production of “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” the 1930 opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, performed by fellows of the institute.

Fortunately, a top-notch substitute was all set to go: Erik Nielsen, a 31-year-old American conductor who has worked in Germany since 2001, most recently at the Frankfurt Opera. Mr. Nielsen, who was scheduled to conduct the third and final performance of “Mahagonny” on Monday, took the podium at the Tanglewood Theater on Saturday afternoon, when the production, directed and designed by Doug Fitch, opened.

The eager and accomplished cast was appealing over all, and Mr. Fitch’s production made inventive use of basic scenic elements. But the highlight was Mr. Nielsen’s cool, incisive and gripping conducting. He drew dynamic playing from the excellent orchestra and seemed at home in a challenging score that blurs distinctions between opera, musical theater and 1920s German cabaret, evoking everything from Bach fugues to the foxtrot, from medieval chant to the tango, from Stravinsky orchestral barbarism to jazzy banjo and saxophone.

During the rehearsal period, Mr. Nielsen went to New York to pick up insights from Mr. Levine, who is recuperating at his home. Mr. Levine has conducted most of the Metropolitan Opera’s 39 performances of this work to date, both at the house and on tour, from the 1979 premiere of John Dexter’s production through the most recent revival in 1995.

The story of “Mahagonny” remains as tough and cynical as ever. Three scam artists in flight from the law, forced to stop in the middle of nowhere because their truck has broken down, decide to found a new town, Mahagonny, a place that might attract nearby fortune hunters who have been searching for gold on the coast. In Mahagonny people will do as they please. The city, they are certain, will lure vulnerable drifters, lost souls looking to make (or lose) a quick buck through boozing, gambling, food and sex.

Weill’s music, though mostly stern and rigorous, has stretches of plaintive lyricism and searching harmony. Weill softens the anticapitalist screed in Brecht’s text and humanizes the characters. Seeing the opera performed by this cast humanized it even more. There was something touching about watching young singers full of promise portraying vacant-eyed prostitutes, like the dusky-toned mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb as Jenny. Or hapless lumberjacks, like the boyish lyric tenor Steven Ebel as Jimmy Mahoney, the pitiable hero of the work, who is electrocuted for failing to pay a reckless gambling debt and a big bar tab. To be without money is the one unpardonable crime in Mahagonny.

In casting “Mahagonny” a production can treat the work as an opera or a musical theater piece. Mr. Levine certainly cast it as an opera at the Met, starting with the original production headed by Teresa Stratas, a Jenny for the ages, and the Wagnerian tenor Richard Cassilly, scoring a career triumph as Jimmy.

This Tanglewood production, naturally, offered a cast of aspiring opera singers. And I applaud the decision to perform the work in a good English translation (David Drew and Michael Geliot) without relying on English titles to assist the audience’s comprehension of the text.

Still, I wish Mr. Nielsen, Mr. Fitch and the voice coaches at Tanglewood had ridden the cast harder, insisting that making the words clear was more important than singing prettily. Some performers were excellent at this, like the baritone Jonathan Beyer, who sang Trinity Moses in a robust voice but made every word a living presence. But the mezzo-soprano Christin-Marie Hill, as the scheming Leocadia Begbick, had more trouble. In working to tame her earthy and tremulous voice, Ms. Hill let many words become a mumble.

Adam Sattley as Jacob Schmidt, Alex Richardson as Fatty the Bookkeeper, Evan M. Boyer as Alaska Wolf Joe and Mischa Bouvier as Moneybags Billy all did solid work and were mostly successful at conveying the words.
The final chorus, a slow, steady, hard-driving march, had the requisite bleakness. With the hedonistic town in shambles, the residents demonstrate for their ideals, holding placards that are all too timely: “Support Fear,” “Trust Us,” “Don’t Think,” “Who Are They?”

Yet to experience the chorus performed by young artists on the thresholds of their careers lent the show an element of uplift that — my guess — would have gratified Weill and infuriated Brecht.