WEILL: Die Dreigroschenoper
Max Raabe (Macheath), HK Gruber (Peachum), Nina Hagen (Mrs. Peachum), Sona MacDonald (Polly), Hannes Hellmann (Brown), Winnie Bowe (Lucy), Timna Brauer (Jenny), Jörgen Holtz (Narrator); Ensemble Modern/HK Gruber, cond.
RCA Red Seal 66133 (2 CDs). (F) (DDD) . TT: 82:23

A critical edition of Threepenny might seem premature—it's not as if its 1928 premiere, after all, were lost in the mists of dim antiquity. But Stephen Hinton of Stamford University (who contributes a booklet note) and Edward Harsh have, for the new Kurt Weill Edition, reconciled discrepancies among the full score, piano-vocal score, and original script, reflecting production changes. Their edition also "spells out" Weill's suggested instrumental reprises of some numbers, and includes as an appendix two numbers cut from the original production: Mrs. Peachum's "Ballad of the Prisoner of Sexuality" and Lucy's aria.

The present recording follows the new Critical Edition for the music, including all the additional interludes, but replaces Bertolt Brecht's original dialogue with connective narration. The producers have restored the "Sexuality" ballad to its original position in the score; Lucy's aria, with piano accompaniment, is tacked on as an addendum to the performance proper.

The performance by the instrumentalists and vocalists of Ensemble Modern is certainly stylish. The playing is first-rate: the wind-based orchestra under HK Gruber plays alertly, with a tangy, well-balanced sonority, a wide variety of colors and a good dance-band rhythmic lilt. The "Pimps' Ballad" is a sinuous, insinuating tango; the Morität waltz interlude has a saxy, jazzy feel. A brilliant, forward recording helps put this across, although the harmonium sounds "flat" and synthetic.

Threepenny, of course, is not a conventional "opera" at all, requiring a hybrid of classical and music-hall vocal techniques and styles. The present cast spans the full range of combinations thereof; and I suspect their singing will ultimately determine one's reaction to the performance. Max Raabe, the Macheath, has a firm "legit" voice, subtly inflecting the text and rhythms of the familiar Morität (perhaps you call it "Mack the Knife"), ringing out in a solid tenor in the finale. Sona MacDonald (Polly), Winnie Böwe (Lucy), and Timna Brauer (Jenny) are cabaret-type sopranos, with Brauer maintaining the clearest tone; the others are more brittle, and lean on high chest notes for effect. I was less impressed with Polly's elders. Gruber's Peachum is vocally all over the lot, now exhaling a breathy mike voice, now squeezing a constricted character sound, and growling his way through the "First Threepenny Finale." And Nina Hagen delivers Mrs. Peachum's music —"sings" is too strong a word—not in a real belt, which, however strained, would have had tonal clarity and zing, but in an unlistenable gargled rasp: a diseuse crossing the line into disease.

The additional number for Lucy—practically an operatic dramatic recitative—is a dubious bonus, exposing as it does Böwe's shrill, poorly controlled upper extension, and forcing the performance onto a second CD to boot. And points off to the producers for printing Michael Feingold's first-rate singing translation, which of course doesn't always correspond to what the German actually says.

So I'd bypass this one, despite the scholarly considerations, stylistic acumen, and gorgeous playing. The instrumentals are gorgeous, but if you just want to revel in Weill's distinctive "sound," his Threepenny concert suite, the Kleine Dreigroschenmusik, includes the best-known numbers; either Weisberg's (Nonesuch 71281-2) or Rudel's better-recorded one (Musicmasters 7007-2-C) will serve admirably

S.F.V. (May 2000)