Composer: Kurt Weill
Text: Bertolt Brecht
Conductor: James Holmes
Director/Choreographer: Gary Clarke
This production of The Seven Deadly Sins was scheduled as half of a double bill with Handel’s Acis and Galatea, but, like so much else, was called off in the second lockdown, postponed, fortunately, rather than cancelled. As a taster this striking production of Weill and Brecht’s sung ballet was livestreamed.
It is not hard to predict the political and social attitudes of a work written by a Jew and a Communist in exile from Germany in 1933. America is a land of opportunity, but also home to a crass materialism; the exploitation of women by capitalist society is attacked, as is the tendency to cloak materialism in sanctimonious religiosity; the needs of the homeless are a key motif. However, it is not by any means a gloomy piece: satirical in tone, it cloaks its anger in wit and drollery.
Composed for Lotte Lenya and Tilly Losch, The Seven Deadly Sins pairs a singer and a dancer, playing two halves of the same character – or maybe twins – the libretto is deliberately ambiguous. Anna goes on a seven-year tour of the United States to earn enough money to buy a house for her family in Louisiana, every year a new city, every year a new sin. Anna I, the singer, wants to get on, make money, do what society wants; Anna II, the dancer, is more artistic and less conventional, constantly upbraided by Anna I for “sins” which are more moral than Anna I’s own acceptance of social norms.
The production, livestreamed from Leeds Playhouse, makes the fluid action, if anything, more immediately intelligible through elements of social distancing. In George Johnson-Leigh’s designs Anna moves through seven marked out zones, each numbered, boards identifying city and sin, and her homeless family are wanderers through the unmarked spaces. Lighting (Mike Lock) tends to be subdued, picking out those areas where the camera is focussed.
Thanks to the co-operation of the Royal Opera House, this performance is a preview of a new arrangement for 15 players by HK Gruber and Christian Muthspiel, due to be officially premiered at Covent Garden in Spring 2021. Under James Holmes’ expert direction the orchestration, very much wind-dominated, has the appropriately edgy cabaret feel. Again the translation is not the traditional Auden/Kallman version, but a smart piece of work from Michael Feingold, slangy when necessary, often witty: “They don’t want a hippo in Philadelphia,” Anna II is warned against Gluttony, having donned a tutu for the Dying Swan.
As the family waiting for a home Stuart Laing, Nicholas Butterfield, Campbell Russell and Dean Robinson are appropriately sanctimonious (“every sinner starts by being lazy,” they repeatedly intone), with Robinson’s bass deadpanning the role of Mother (nice handbag!).
As the two Annas Wallis Giunta and Shelley Eva Haden are perfectly contrasted. Anna I explains at the outset, “Her head is in the clouds, my feet are on the ground,” and Giunta’s expressive mezzo plays it straight – poised legato singing of words that you have to agree with until you think about them. Only in her superbly delivered wake-up call at the end of Envy, sin number 7, does the assertive materialism underlying it all surface openly. Under the direction of choreographer Gary Clarke Haden is all activity, flexible, physical, grotesque, bizarrely sensual, above all angry, until at the end, broken, crawling, stripped to her underwear, she comes home, responding meekly to Anna I’s final hymn to materialism.
It’s a powerful 35 minutes, but fun as well and remarkably coherent for a production created at such short notice.