Adelaide Festival

Adelaide Festival Review: Threepenny Opera

This production is a work of art

This production is a work of art

Presented by: Adelaide Festival

Reviewed: 7 March, 2024

Brecht is known for pushing boundaries. His Threepenny Opera is no exception. He wrote it as a socialist critique of the capitalist world and when it first opened in 1928 it was met with mixed reviews, as audiences often missed Brecht’s messages.

Set in Victorian London, Threepenny Opera is centred around Macheath (or Mackie or Mack The Knife). He marries Polly Peachum, and her displeased father, who controls the beggars of London, endeavours to have Macheath hanged. 

This production is a work of art, and like all artworks, some people will love it, others will contemplate its messages for days, and others won’t get it. It was clear that the audience was a real mixture in how they connected to Threepenny Opera. It is a wonderfully crafted piece of art that has so many layers to it. It will leave me thinking about it for some time.

This production is staged in a very modern approach, featuring a contemporary costume design by Dinah Ehm that perfectly complements each character. Ulrich Eh’s lighting design makes clever use of the scaffold by featuring a lot of side lighting states that create eerie shadows across the stage. Holger Schwank’s sound design is brilliant. Nothing is out of place — the balance between the orchestra and cast is perfect, subtle and sounds natural.

The set was visually striking, consisting of a series of scaffolds that housed levels, platforms and ladders. The cast climbed over and through the scaffold throughout the production, using it as different locations or to symbolise hierarchy levels. However, this did at times create sightline issues as bars of its frame would cover cast members, and lighting sometimes struggled to hit faces. The full stage has a gentle rake to it and the scaffold segments slide back and forth from front to back, allowing different stage spaces to be created. 

Kurt Weill’s score is simply stunning. It could be described as the place where Weimar Cabaret meets traditional and contemporary opera vocal technique. The simple orchestration, featuring seven highly talented musicians, beautifully highlights the Weimar Cabaret elements. The score is emotive, playful and at times full of anguish. Conductor Adam Benzwi (who conducts from the piano and harmonium) perfectly executes Weill’s score, supported by James Scannell (Alto Saxophone, Clarinet, Flute and Piccolo), Doris Decker (Soprano Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone, Baritone Saxophone), Nathan Plante (Trumpet), Otwin Zipp (Trombone and Double Bass), Sebastian Trimolt (Drums) and Ralf Templin (Guitar and Banjo). At certain moments in the production, the orchestra is pulled into the staging of the production, providing great comedic moments. 

The Threepenny Opera is performed in German with English surtitles. In most cases, surtitles are projected above the stage, which makes it easy to glance up to see the translation without missing too much of the action. In this production, the surtitles are to the sides of the stage, which means you often miss longer moments of the show when looking at the screens for the translation. Also, it didn’t help that throughout lots of the dialogue, the surtitle operator seemed to be out of their depth. Large portions of text were skipped on the screen or raced through, or was left on blank screens.

The Peachum family is superbly cast. Cynthia Micas presented a very likeable Polly Peachum. Vocally, Micas is very emotive, especially in the ballads. Constanze Becker is exquisite as Celia Peachum (Polly’s mother). Vocally, this role is very Sprechgesang (speak-singing) and Becker provides bucketloads of animation through her facial expressions. Tilo Nest’s portrayal of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum rounds out the Peachum family superbly. His stage presence is commanding and vocally, he is a real treat to listen to. 

Gabriel Schneider is perfectly cast as Macheath (known as Mackie Messer). He finds great humour in the role and pulls on the twisted and darkness in the character very effectively through his voice and mannerisms. Vocally, Schneider is stunning. He handles the complex nature of Weill’s score with ease. 

Kathrin Wehlisch plays Brown, the chief of police, with excellent character choices. Wehlisch’s stage presence captures the audience whenever on stage and seems to revel in the comedy nature of the role. Brown’s daughter Lucy is sensationally played by Laura Balzer. She toes the line of psychotic, which works extremely well for the character. Vocally at times it felt Balzer was slightly under pitch, but this could have been a character choice. It mostly worked, but did sound a little off when there were duet moments and harmonies. Her comedic timing is brilliant. 

Vocally, the whole cast was brilliant. All their voices were so individual and unique, but when they sang together it just worked. It wasn’t until the climax of Act 1 that we heard the full company sing together, and boy… What a treat.

Barrie Kosky’s direction pulls out all the stops. Kosky finds and uses to great advantage all the dark and light moments in the script. Whilst drawing hugely on Brecht’s original concepts and themes, there are also exciting fresh elements that bring it to the modern audience. Kosky also draws brilliantly on the comedic moments in the script that break the tension from the darker subject matter.

It’s not every day that a production like this comes to town. We are blessed in Adelaide that festivals like the Adelaide Festival spend the time searching the globe to source productions of this caliber. A masterpiece of theatre.

Reviewed by Ben Stefanoff

Photo credit: supplied

Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre
Season: ended

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