Bertolt Brecht, poet, playwright, activist, was not Kurt Weill’s preferred collaborator when it came time to craft the libretto for The Seven Deadly Sins. And Weill’s original vision of the piece, its import and tone, was to be greatly expanded beyond his first imaginings.
Commissioned in early 1930s Paris by Edward James, a wealthy patron of the arts as a vehicle for his wife, the celebrated dancer Tilly Losch, Weill’s initial impulse was to frame the abundance of prescribed song and movement in strict Freudian terms. Ego and id would star. Human psychology would be the show. Curiously, Jean Cocteau, founding father of the French avant-garde, artistic risk-taker extraordinaire, declined to be involved with the radical ballet chanté when approached. Determined to move the project forward, Weill turned to his former partner from the Weimar days. It could not have been an easy decision.
Leading lights on the edgy theatre scene in Berlin in the late 1920s, Brecht, outspoken Marxist provocateur, and Weill, brilliant Jewish composer/songwriter, both hounded into exile by the Nazis, had a notoriously stormy working relationship. Somewhat to the latter’s surprise, Brecht undertook the libretto with a blunt demand that it reflect his uncompromising socialist point of view. Weill agreed.
On June 7, 1933, Die sieben Todsünden der Kleinbürger (The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petite Bourgeoisie), to cite its rarely evoked full title, premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, choreographed by Rusian émigré Giorgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze, a.k.a. George Balanchine. It would be the last time Brecht and Weill would join forces.
Showcasing a spellbinding, fully staged production of the pair’s quick, leftist jab at authority, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra unveils the second instalment in its three-part mini series, The Decades Project 1930 – 1939, a vibrant musical tribute to an anxious age. Directed by award-winning indie opera mastermind Joel Ivany, with stunning choreography by Toronto’s own Jennifer Nichols, an era-defining classic virtually leaps from the stage of Roy Thomson Hall. Crackling with energy, The Seven Deadly Sins electrifies.
Brecht’s scathing narrative, unapologetically allegorical, traces a bold arc, a skewed picaresque tale of misadventure and vice.
Two sisters, both named Anna, mirror images of a shared existence, are dispatched by their mother, father and two brothers on an expedition across America to earn enough money to build the family ein kleines Haus am Mississippi (“a little home down by the Mississippi”). Anna I is all rationalism and enterprise. Anna II, an exotic dancer, Die Schwester ist schön (“the sister with looks”), is artistic, impulsive, eager for experience. Their journey, grounded more in myth and make-believe than any authentic geographical awareness on either Brecht or Weill’s part at the time, takes the Annas to seven different locales: a lazy town in Louisiana, then on to the teeming cities of Memphis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore and San Francisco. Anna II finds herself embroiled in mishaps at every stop en route, not so much sinful situations per se, but rather the inevitable consequences of her all too impetuous nature. Anna I is forever quick with criticism. Her sister’s fallibility and openness are thorny impediments to their righteous crusade for cash best snipped in the bud. Anna II develops an artistic bent in Memphis abandoning bump and grind for ballet. Anna I sneers. Stolz ist etwas für die reichen Leute; Tu was man von dir verlangt und nicht was du willst. (“Leave your pride to those who can well afford it. Do what you are asked to do and not what you want.”) Finally, after an epic round of seduction, double-dealing, violence and incitement to commit suicide, all in the cause of fleecing entire populations of urban males, the Annas return to Louisiana, rich beyond their family’s wildest dreams.
Wry, provocative, darkly comedic, The Seven Deadly Sins strikes straight to the centre of Brecht’s tough-minded socio-political philosophy. The single fundamental doctrine that informs the double Annas’ quest, the core value that underpins their mad twisted world, is nothing less than capitalism turned predatory. Here the voracious feed on the victimized. Morality is the product of expediency times self-interest. Lucrative outcomes are all that matters. Sin yields lavish profits.
If cynicism and disillusionment are obvious sidebars to the author’s bitter analysis of the modern age, then so too is outrage. Capitalism perverts and Brecht is having none of it. Nothing and no one escapes the lash of vicious satire.
As unflinching and demonstrative as Ivany and Nichols may be in their riveting depictions of depravity and corruption — the Family prowls a barren stage like a pack of slavering wolves; Anna II is assaulted by waves of groping hands — it is the treatment of the sisters as lonely, isolated anti-heroes increasingly at odds with their own sense of blurred identity that so vividly seizes our attention. Successive images of the pair captured in moody black and white, haunted Bergmanesque close-ups projected on cinema-sized screens, reveal the two characters as silent and alienated from their psyches as they are from each other. The inner loss of self and the outward shedding of humanity play out with stark, graphic drama. Anna II screams but there is no sound. She has never had a voice. Anna as dual avatar is glimpsed walking, suitcase in hand, along a deserted stretch of railroad tracks, headed for a future that ultimately leads back to Louisiana. The past is inescapable.
The integration of live performance — singing, dance, pose, gesture — at times extrapolated directly into the audience, combined with pre-recorded digital video feels utterly seamless and acutely appropriate.
Posted upstage centre, conductor Peter Oundjian traces the full sweep of Weill’s pulsing rhythms and unsettling harmonies with tireless enthusiasm. With musicians drawn tightly around him, men in shirtsleeves and suspenders, women in essential cabaret black, The Seven Deadly Sins weaves its sultry allure, startling, unpredictable, dangerous. A waltz is overcome by swooping woodwinds. One moment a chorale is on the menu, three scenes later a barber shop quartet is featured fare. An air becomes a march becomes a plaint. The scope of Weill’s inventiveness is intoxicating. The TSO uncorks his effervescent score with great style and flair.
Centering the vocal dynamic of the evening, mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta brings immeasurable strength of purpose and continuity to this highly charged Seven Deadly Sins as the ever caustic, eternally unimpressed Anna I. The role, created by Weill expressly for his wife, Lotte Lenya who sang the part to great effect well into old age, is a taxing one demanding almost equal measures of worldliness and spirit. Snarling, catty, weary, admonishing, Giunta bounces from scene to scene with palpable vitality, an omnipresent dramatic force, sharp-eyed and even sharper tongued.
Stepping out of her capacity as choreographer into dancing slippers, Jennifer Nichols embodies all the vulnerability and pathos of Anna II, sensuous, almost ethereal. There is a vague aura of earthly piety surrounding her relentlessly persecuted character, an innocent agnus dei who assumes the sins of the world and by doing so, removes them. Perhaps it is the purity of her line, perhaps it is her grace, somehow Nichols embodies an almost angelic presence on stage. Anna II’s near total physical and emotional destruction at the hands of all who abuse her becomes a tragic coda.
Bass baritone Stephen Hegedus sings Mother. Tenor Isaiah Bell is Father. Fellow tenor Owen McCausland and baritone Geoffrey Sirett are Brothers. Taken together — and they are very rarely heard apart — the Family forms a robust chorus, prickly and perverse, sanctimonious to the point of insufferable with a rousing prayer, it seems, for essentially every occasion.
To see a group of male singer actors so proficiently engaged in intricate patterns of contemporary dance is extraordinary. All four are to be roundly cheered.
Wickedly ironic, darkly visionary, The Seven Deadly Sins is a sinfully rich experience, musical theatre of sheer perfection, supremely satisfying, thoroughly delectable.
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Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta by Béla Bartók open the evening’s programming. Both written in 1936, the two intensely resonant works form a fitting historical prelude to the main event. James Balfour’s all-too-brief Kiwetin-acahkos (North Star – Fanfare for the Peoples of the North: Sesquie for Canada 150) is a timeless statement unto itself.