Thursday, February 27, 2014

Mixed Media: 'The Threepenny Opera' & 'Hull Ferens Art Gallery'

The Mixed Media column from the February 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Threepenny Opera

Last year there was a semi-staging by director Ted Huffman of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's 1928 Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's South Bank. This performance was sung in German with English surtitles and had a linking narration specially written by Brecht for concert performances such as this.

The Threepenny Opera is an adaptation of John Gay's 1728 ballad opera The Beggar's Opera which is a satire on the corruption of the Walpole government in the aftermath of the financial crash of the South Sea Company. John Gay had a relish for low life, an affinity shared with Brecht who set The Threepenny Opera in a Soho of the lumpenproletariat of thieves, beggars, and whores.

Max Hopp as the Narrator sang Die Moritat von Mackie Messer (The Ballad of Mack the Knife). Max Hopp recently had a leading role in the William S Burroughs-Tom Waits 'musical fable' The Black Rider at the Theater Basel.

Low-Dive Jenny performed by Meow Meow sang Seeräuberjenny (Pirate Jenny): 'you toss me a penny, and I'm always quick to thank/Even though you see my rags/And fifty canons/Will fire at the shore/My Sirs, there your laughter will stop/Because the walls will fall/And the city will be level with the ground.'

Mark Padmore as Macheath and Nicholas Folwell as 'Tiger' Brown, the corrupt police chief duet on the Kanonen-Song (Cannon Song): 'young men's blood goes on being red/And the army goes on recruiting.'

Macheath and Jenny duet on the materialist II Dreigroschenfinale, Denn wovon lebt der Mensch? (Second Threepenny Opera Finale, What Keeps Mankind Alive); 'Food is the first thing: morals follow on/You gentlemen who think you have a mission/to purge us from the seven deadly sins/ Should first sort out the basic food position.'

The Threepenny Opera is notable for Weill's music which was scored for a jazz dance band drawing on the rhythms and idioms of the dance music of the time. Weill's music is a reaction to the bourgeois genre of operetta. He emulates John Gay in his use of vernacular musical styles.

Brecht aims his satire at the corruption, hypocrisy, greed, self-satisfaction of the capitalist class, the venality of aspirations to bourgeois respectability and what the bourgeoisie had in common with ruthless criminals. Macheath says 'What is the burgling of a bank to the founding of a bank?'

Theodore Adorno judged it the most important event since Berg's Wozzeck and Brecht later wrote 'young proletarians suddenly came to the theatre, in some cases for the first time, and then quite often came back.'

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Hull Ferens Art Gallery

The Ferens Art Gallery in Hull which opened in 1927 is a great example of how impressive a municipal art collection can be outside the metropolis. In fact this gallery has A View on the Grand Canal (1728) by 'Venetia Vedutista' Canaletto, one of many ‘views’ which were once in demand by the aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie as souvenirs of the Grand Tour, and one of the few in an English municipal collection.

Impressionist Laura Knight's evocative Dressing the Children (1906) portrays a woman dressing children by firelight in a kitchen with a cat in the centre of the picture. It was painted in the cottage of an ironstone miner and his family in the fishing village of Staithes on the Yorkshire coast where Knight lived in an artists’ colony. Knight records in her autobiography how she saw in the cottage 'greater poverty and misery than it seemed possible for anyone to bear.' The family relied heavily on Knight's income, and eventually she and her husband gave the family five pounds to buy a horse and cart and to set up a fish selling business. Only part of the loan was repaid, the remainder was offered as a gift. In the Second World War Knight was a 'War Artist' and painted the iconic feminist Ruby Loftus screwing a Breech-ring.

The semi-abstract Keith Vaughan's Coastal Defences (Seaford, East Sussex) (c1959-62) is abstract assemblies of two dimensional geometrical shapes although Vaughan always rooted his paintings in observed reality, and was never completely abstract. There is a Henry Moore sculpture Working Model for Seated Woman (1980) which is a figure seated on a solid but low block base for support with her cloth-bound knees forced upwards by the pose.

Niccolò Renieri's baroque St Sebastian tended by the Holy Irene (1625) is in the style of the great Caravaggio with its strong lighting contrasts (chiaroscuro) and a preoccupation with the human body. A Roman warrior, the legend goes, Sebastian served in the private guard of the Emperor Diocletian, who sentenced him to be shot with arrows as punishment for his Christian faith, but as he lay dying and wounded he was found by the Holy Irene and nursed back to health. This painting is a very popular piece of work in the Ferens Art Gallery due to its striking nature and scale, it has been described as 'one of his most successful works, perhaps even his masterpiece.'
Steve Clayton