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.


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