September 7, 2016

Seven Deadly Sins: art reflects life with homelessness in Louisiana

Summer is OVER, opera pals! College football players are already nursing bruises, opera companies are rehearsing like mad, and Your Humble Blogger is tan, rested, and ready to shed light on Virginia Opera's 2016-2017 season.
Kurt Weill (1900-1950)

On September 30, the curtain at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk will rise on a double-bill: Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins, and Leoncavallo's reliable Pagliacci. Suck it, Mascagni! Breaking tradition here; a good thing! My first several posts will deal with the Weill piece.

Can I just say that I have become obsessed with Deadly Sins? For most of my life, my acquaintance with Weill was limited to "Mack the Knife", "Lonely House" from Street Scene, and "September Song" from Knickerbocker Holiday. But I'm making up for lost time, having A) studied Threepenny Opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, among other works; and B) have fallen in total, blissful love with Deadly Sins. I've purchased no fewer than eight recordings on CD or DVD of the piece which I will briefly critique below.

But first: how ironic and improbable is it that, just as tens of thousands of people in Louisiana have lost their homes in the wake of the recent devastating floods, Virginia Opera is staging a work about a family striving to build a home in a fictional Louisiana? Seriously, what were the odds?

Think about it: in Weill's masterwork, a woman called Anna leaves her home "where the Mississippi waters flow beneath the moon" on a mission: to earn enough money as a dancer to "build a little house" for her family. The libretto, by the mercurial German theatrical genius Bertolt Brecht, does not explain the family's circumstances or why a home is needed. It's tempting, however, to imagine a natural disaster in the light of current headlines.

It's hard to discuss this "sung ballet" (as the publisher called it) without stricken Louisiana residents in mind, so how about this: whether or not you can attend our production, here's a way you can help: click on this link to go to America's Charities Disaster Recovery Fund, where you can safely and securely make a donation of any size to help relieve the suffering of the real homeless people.

How bad is it down there? According to the website link above,
"At least 11 deaths have been attributed to the flooding, more than 30,000 people have been evacuated, and 12,000 are currently in shelters. More than 40,000 homes and businesses are without power and Louisiana State University has shuttered its doors as a result of flooding on the campus."

So please consider doing what you can to help all the real Anna's out there.

But back to Weill and his incredible forty-minute gem. I'll never forget the first time I heard this music; I'd just gotten the first of my several recordings. I popped the disc into my laptop, opened the libretto and almost instantly was GOBSMACKED by some of the most arresting, compelling, unforgettable theater music I've ever heard. My litmus test for a new piece I've never heard before is simply this: having heard it once, do I ever want or need to hear it again? My most recent post about Godard's opera Dante was on this topic. Dante wasn't horrible, but it lacked whatever it is that makes great music great. Having heard it once, I realized "That's it. Don't need to hear it any more". The opposite was true with Deadly Sins. When it was over, I had an immediate hunger to hear it AGAIN. And AGAIN. And AGAIN.

The piece is hard to pigeon-hole; it defies categorization, which may account for it's slow road to acceptance by the public. I mean, Aida is an opera, Nutcracker is a ballet and Das Lied von der Erde is a song cycle. Simple. But not Seven Deadly Sins! It's part opera, part ballet, part cantata, part cabaret, part symphonic song cycle..... whew! Weill produced a work of art that is truly unique. Nothing else bears any resemblance to it.

I'll discuss the music in more detail in future posts, but for those who don't know the work and would like to hear it, I'll quickly describe the recordings I've acquired, in ascending order from LEAST recommended to MOST recommended, identifying the vocal soloist and conductor. So at the bottom of the pack:

1) Marianne Faithfull, (Dennis Russell Davies) Weill wrote the work for an operatic soprano with full orchestra (and a male quartet to depict her family back home in Louisiana.) When Lotte Lenya (the composer's wife and creator of the role of Anna) wished to record the piece following Weill's death, her voice was no longer capable of negotiating the original high key. So a transposition was made, pitched a fourth lower, to accommodate her tabacco-ravaged range. Marianne Faithful, whose voice makes Bette Davis sound like Minnie Mouse, can't even manage the low key, so her solution is to sing in the original key, but one octave lower. She growls seductively, with an articulation of the authorized English translation that makes her sound like she's on her fourth scotch-rocks. This is NOT what Weill had in mind. Deadly Sins has elements of cabaret, but cabaret it is not. Not recommended.

2) Lotte Lenya, (Wilhelm Brueckner-Rueggenberg) Lenya achieved international stardom by performing her husband's music. She was the Clara Schumann to Weill's Robert; his muse and his trusted interpreter. SO: this one should be the "real deal", right? Well, no. Again, an estimated 500,000 cigarettes had robbed her of youthful vocal ease, if not her distinctive personality, with a disappointing result. Her effortful vocalism actually deprives her of the chance to impart pathos and dramatic subtlety to her performance. Recommended ONLY as a document of historical interest.

3) Karen Herr Erickson (Samuel Cristler) Here is a performance in keeping with Weill's intentions: sung in the original key by an operatic performer. And it's in English, to boot. The downsides are mushy acoustics (the performance was a live broadcast heard on NPR and not available on CD) and a curious dramatic blandness. The singing was not particularly full of character or individuality. But it's the only choice for an English-language recording in the high key.

4) Ute Lemper (John Mauceri) If you want to hear a low-key performance, in the original language, sung by a cabaret singer with real credentials in that field, this is a fair choice. Ms. Lemper sings with committment and belts effortlessly in climactic moments. Makes one wonder what Barbra Streisand in her prime might have made of this material. Still not my recommended version.

5) Teresa Stratas (Kent Nagano) Stratas is a justly famed intrepreter of Weill, and she sings her face off in this staged DVD performance. The music sounds fine, even though the soprano was no longer young when this was made, and let's just say that the steel belt occasionally appears in the radial tire of her splendid voice. There's a bit of strain. But a larger reservation is Peter Sellars' predictably idiosyncratic direction. Lots of deliberately confused, jerky, chaotic camera-work; lots of abstraction in the story-telling. Look: it's one thing to take a well-known standard opera like Cosi fan tutte and give it the Regietheater treatment by setting it in a diner. But it's another to distort this piece in a video that is likely to be most viewer's first introduction to it. And no sub-titles!! Boo.

6) Angelika Kirschlager (H.G. Gruber) This is another DVD, done in concert style. That in itself is not a problem; I myself saw a live performance last spring by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. with the cabaret singer Storm Large. Weill's piece actually lends itself well to semi-staging, and Ms. Large captivated her audience. But this video performance is a mixed bag. I don't quarrel with Kirschalger's singing; it's fine, on a par with Stratas. HOWEVER: it's not "semi-staged"; she simply stands in place as if singing a Bach cantata. Acting is limited to facial expressions. Still, it has its points.

7) Elise Ross (Simon Rattle) Here is a performance sung as Weill intended, in German with a lyric soprano. The biggest plus to this disc: Rattle's stylish conducting. Ms. Ross is occasionally a bit monochromatic in terms of vocal color, but she does a solid job. I prefer her rendition of the "Pride" section to all the others.

But top honors (and it's not even close) go to:

8) Ann Sofie von Otter (John Eliot Gardiner) This is a sublime recording. Von Otter imbues every syllable with heart-breaking meaning; she makes the character of Anna truly come alive. In the climactic "Envy" section, she sings with such vivid ferocity that it gives me goose-flesh every time. In the "Lust" section, she sings with such emotional directness and intimacy that it's almost unbearable. This disc is definitive and indispensable for fans of Kurt Weill. Highly recommended.

And again - if you're going to pony up for any of these recordings, at least consider donating the same amount to the charitable website I mentioned above. All the real-life Annas will really appreciate it.


9 comments:

  1. Thank you for your miracle Doctor Osemu Okpamen

    This article is dedicated to the Doctor Osemu Okpamen. I have been married with my wife for 5 years and recently she broke up with me and it hurt me deeply when she told me to leave her alone and that she does not love me anymore when i was always faithful and honest to her. I tried all the ways to get her back buying her what she wants like i always did and she still left me heart broken and she even has a new boyfriend which destroyed me even more until a friend of mine from high school directed me to this genuine spell Doctor called Osemu Okpamen. This man changed my life completely. I followed everything he told me to do and my wife came back begging for me back. I was stunned everything happened exactly like he told me. I had faith in everything he told me and everything was true. Also he was there every moment until i got my happiness back and he also provides spells that cures any diseases & sickness. You could contact him via email at { Doctorokpamenspelltemple@yahoo.com } or visit his website http://www.doctorokpamenspells.com or reach him on +1 (914)-517-3229, +2348135254384. He will help you in anything you need and quick to answer once you contact him.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wow i never thought i will happy in my life ever again, i want you all to thank DR OGUDUGU of GREATOGUDUGU@GMAIL.COM, he is a father that takes care of his children the spell caster of our time, he has saved me from a very ugly situation that almost made my life miserable and i want you all to thank him for me,my husband and i have be married for so many years now with children and the relationship was being threatened by a small girl in his working place,she was almost destroying my home i met so many spell casters but to no avail until i met a friend who came from africa and she told me about DR OGUDUGU, and i decided to contact him and try him out as i was losing faith in all spell casters, but he told not to worry that now am in his temple everything will be alright he assured me 100% that his spell has no side effects and that it will work straight and save my home and my marriage and after he has performed the sacrifices and casted the spell, my husband came back to us with love and affection and he loved us more and more and he never looked back or none did his love for me waiver, if you are also experiencing this sort of your situation in your home, if your husband is drifting away, if you are experiencing a broken home or you have lost your husband to a young woman outside there then look no further help is here as GREATOGUDUGU@GMAIL.COM is ready to help you out okay for any of your problem is it financial needs, revenge spell,Hiv cure, job spell, promotion spell what kind of spell do you need DR OGUDUGU is going to solve it for you okay i have promised him to always talk of his good works to the world in general and to any body who cares to listen, you can email him on his personal email on GREATOGUDUGU@GMAIL.COM or his website @ www.greatdrogudugusolutiontemple.webs.com and he will attend to you as soon as possible okay once again his email is GREATOGUDUGU@GMAIL.COM.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Contact Dr Olokun if you 're interested in a love spell to bring back your ex lover. Money spell, spells to cure HIV, mermaid, spells to stop a divorce, spells to win any court case and lots more. This man brought back my husband of about 4years within 3days, his the only one to contact ones it involves spell casting.
    Contact Email: drolokun23@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  4. My name is James henlen , and I base in USA...My life is back!!!
    After 2 years of Broken marriage, my husband left me with two
    kids . I felt like my life was about to end i almost committed
    suicide, i was emotionally down for a very long time. Thanks to
    a spell caster called Dr okougbo, which i met online. On one
    faithful day, as I was browsing through the internet,I came
    across allot of testimonies about this particular spell caster.
    Some people testified that he brought their Ex lover back,
    some testified that he restores womb,cure cancer,and other
    sickness, some testified that he can cast a spell to stop divorce
    and so on. i also come across one particular testimony,it was
    about a woman called Sonia,she testified about how he
    brought back her Ex lover in less than 2 days, and at the end of
    her testimony she dropped Dr okougbo e-mail address. After
    reading all these,I decided to give it a try. I contacted him via
    email and explained my problem to him. In just 48hours, my
    husband came back to me. We solved our issues, and we are
    even happier than before Dr okougbo, is really a gifted man
    and i will not stop publishing him because he is a wonderful
    man... If you have a problem and you are looking for a real
    and genuine spell caster to solve all your problems for you. Contact.com anytime, he might be the answer
    to your problems. Here's his contact: drokougbospelltemple@gmail.com.com or contact him on whatsAPP +2349031111198

    ReplyDelete