For this weekend, Tacoma’s Rialto Theater has been transformed into a Dickensian world of grimy wood scaffolding and tattered burlesque lace, of Cockney accents and caricatures. “The Threepenny Opera,” that bitter antisocial diatribe with a cabaret score, gets three shows there in a production by Tacoma Opera, and on opening night proved just as disturbing and beautiful as in 1928. Yet there were some off-putting band issues, and despite a cast of stellar women the central character of Mack the Knife needed a whole lot more sex appeal.
The first thing that hits you is the set, and rightly so: director Noel Koran and designer Mark Thomason have recreated with charred beams, crooked ladders and hessian curtains a world of desperate poverty, watched by recreations of German artist Käthe Kollwitz’ charcoal drawings of starving beggars. Then the actual beggars come onstage, costumed beautifully by Elizabeth Wislar in a maroon-red-black palette of lacy bodices, pinstripes and fedoras, all ripped and filthy. The tableau as newcomer Tate Jorgensen sings that famous “Mack the Knife” song (intense, rather than jazzy) is stunning.
But you have to have more than tableaus for a good opera. As Macheath picks his bride Polly, then tries in vain to escape the machinations of her influential father Peachum – king of London’s beggars – it became clear who owned this production: the women. From Ksenia Popova’s starry-eyed Polly, alternating a soaring, powdered-sugar soprano with a gritty underside, to her cynical, gin-soaked mother (a very convincing Malina Pyron, with golden mezzo); from Polly’s rivals Jenny (Tess Altiveros, sultry and tough-assed) and Lucy (Annie Herzog, an impressive Young Artist with a molasses-sweet voice); and finally to the gaggle of prostitutes swarming like honey-voiced hornets, these women kept delivering.
Unfortunately, their menfolk didn’t. Jorgensen switched smoothly between his Uriah Heep characters (policeman, drunk minister, sniveling Filch) and framing the opera as a quasi-director. And the quartet of Mack’s henchmen (including Jessica Taylor Noronha in a pants role) offered comic relief.
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But other male characters disappointed, despite good singing: Ryan Bede one-dimensional as the corrupt police chief, Glen Guhr as a rather bland Peachum. Worst of all, Timothy Janecke gave Macheath none of the psychopathic blend of charm, sex and violence that makes such a character believable. Swinging uncertainly between weird British accents he seemed more urbane than addictive, proof that a powerful tenor doesn’t make a leading man.
The show had other problems, like a band with intonation issues that was much too loud for the singers, resulting in some messy timing; and a few lighting glitches. A lean audience didn’t help.
Overall, though, “Threepenny” is well worth seeing. Kurt Weill’s music and Bertolt Brecht’s dystopian dialogue still have the power to shock, and make us think, and Tacoma Opera recreates this world in all its dark desperation.