The latest production by Artistic Director Nicole Paiement’s Opera Parallèle, given its first performance last night at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Lam Research Theater, takes her company’s reputation for out-of-the-box thinking to a new level that transcends even the vaguest suggestion of a traditional box. On the surface the program involved the presentation of two relatively short pieces from the early twentieth century, the 1927 Mahagonny-Songpiel by Kurt Weill, setting poems by Bertolt Brecht, and Francis Poulenc’s 1947 two-act opera Les mamelles de Tirésias, based on a play of the same name written in 1903 by Guillaume Apollinaire. However, Resident Stage Director Brian Staufenbiel chose to conceive the production as an uninterrupted evening unfolding an “über-narrative” of “a play within a journey.”
The backstory for this integrating vision involves a dystopian future world in which all natural resources have been depleted and water has become the most valuable commodity. Mahagonny-Songpiel, a cantata of six songs to Brecht texts with instrumental interludes, is performed by a traveling theater troupe working out of a boat on a trailer (no longer capable of sailing on water). They use it to draw an audience for whom they then perform Les mamelles de Tirésias. At the end of the show, they load up the boat and move on to the next potential audience against a reprise of Weill’s music.
This was an ambitious undertaking; and, for the most part, the concept of a unified theater piece succeeded. Considering how radically different these two works are in both musical and literary style, that is saying quite a lot. Much of the success can be attributed to the quality of the musical resources. Working with a chamber orchestra (which required using a reorchestration of Poulenc’s score prepared by Bart Visman in 2001), Paiement summoned up all of the visceral gritty rhetoric Weill engaged to reinforce the spirit of Brecht’s words and then pivoted into the lighthearted Gallic sassiness of Poulenc’s interpretation of Apollinaire’s provocative satire. These instrumental resources were perfectly balanced against a cast of nine high-quality vocalists, outstanding in each of their respective ranges, only six of which participated in both pieces.
Nevertheless, on the dramatic front the overall vision necessitated departing from the original intentions of the text. Both Apollinaire and Brecht were motivated to follow the late nineteenth-century French poets who rallied behind the motto “Épater la bourgeoisie,” which Brecht probably would have expressed in the German version of “stick it to the middle class.” However, while Apollinaire pursued the path of a subtle but sharply pointed wit, Brecht preferred sledge-hammer agitprop. His original staging for Mahagonny-Songpiel was a boxing ring, because the Mahagonny of his poems was an anti-Utopia in which nothing was certain expect that brute force reigned over all. This world of violent thugs did not establish a particularly conducive context for the presentation of a genre-bending comedy in which the battle of the sexes is resolved with a commitment to make lots of children. (40,050 are created over the course of Poulenc’s opera, sung vigorously by thirteen members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus.)
However, if the “über-narrative” never quite fit the vision, it was still never needlessly distracting. The musical interpretation of Brecht’s poems was (with every intention of shameless punning) as curt and vile as one could have wished it to be, while the Poulenc was still a delightful romp, veering wildly from one absurdity to another with agile abandon. Two more opportunities (tonight and tomorrow afternoon) remain in which to enjoy some of the most imaginative efforts of both Weill and Poulenc; and those opportunities definitely should not be overlooked.