Kurt Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins”, Opera North Livestream, 21 Nov 2020

A short and sweet livestream from Opera North.

Amongst the seemingly endless damage wrought by corona virus is Opera North’s appealing Autumn season. Some of it has been salvaged, however, as a series of livestreams, of which this is the first. At thirty-five minutes, this is a short opera—or rather, “sung ballet” (ballet chanté)—which was originally supposed to form part of a double-bill with Handel’s short opera Acis and Galatea in early NovemberIf I understand right, this and the season will be performed in full in 2021.

I suspect that this short livestream is sort of a trial run for the next on 12 December, Beethoven’s massive Fidelioa much more ambitious undertaking. The reduced but interesting free programme describes how the Opera North team had to re-think the opera completely in the wake of the recent corona virus restrictions. An Opera North production normally has eighteen months of preparation time; this was much reduced! Nevertheless, I was a bit disappointed not to have the original pairing with Handel’s Acis and Galatea, and one does wonder if the £10 livestream ticket offers the right price for such a short performance.

In theory, there is no limit to the number of tickets the company could sell, since they are not limited by the space of Leeds Grand Theatre; why not offer something a bit more competitive? I prefer the option taken by other theatres during the time of corona virus, namely of streaming for free, and allowing donations, great and small. (I should add that you can also donate to a local music charity when you book an Opera North livestream.)

On to the piece and the performance. The thirty-five minutes are disposed into nine scenes—seven sins, an introduction, and a conclusion. Very structured; very German! The conceit and story are intriguing, which is appropriate given that they were written by the great Bertolt Brecht, Weill’s frequent musico-literary collaborator. Its structure reminds me somewhat of a medieval saint’s or mystery play.

We have two main characters, who are the same person, Anna I and Anna II, played by two different actresses (Wallis Giunta, soprano, and Shelley Eva Haden, dancer, respectively). There’s a bit of old-fashioned allegorical abstraction in this (the sort of thing I love), and a bit of modern, split-personality, internal agony and self-analysis (which I don’t love but which seems to have been popular in the twentieth century).

The two Annas are sent to seven American cities—each linked to its own peculiar sin—by her family, who want her to get that sweet city money in order to build a nice house in their hometown. You get the sense that Brecht wanted to make the family reprehensible, and that Kurt Weill and Opera North both want them to appear more sympathetic. This gives an interesting tension both to the opera per se and to this production in particular.

We receive this opera in a peculiar way. First of all, this is a new arrangement for fewer players, executed by H. K. Gruber and Christian Muthspiel and supposed to be for a première at The Royal Opera in Spring 2021. It’s an ingenious and skillful reduction; but inevitably the sound is thinner than Weill’s original orchestration, of which there are many recordings. The result is a raw sound lacking that late-romantic, modernist warmth. This does in fact heighten the sense of the opera’s inherently sardonic tone—but perhaps too much?

Secondly, we have an English translation by Michael Feingold. For me, the original German sounds much better—unsurprisingly, since it is rather hard to translate the greats, of whom Brecht is certainly one; but this is a minor quibble.

The production is intelligently done, with a different stage (small, of course) for each city, each part of the story, and each sin. Anna I narrates the progress of her and her co-ego whilst Anna II, the more artistic of the pair, expresses her pain and humiliation through dance. The production handles this with perhaps too great a hint of seriousness for the playful Weill (in my opinion); but it gets the message across.

As always with Opera North, the singing and playing are top-notch. The livestream sound is very high quality, but it lacks the warmth of the acoustics in the theatre. The microphones sound very close to the instruments. (Think of the strings in Hitchcock’s Psycho.) For me, the sets are a bit bare: this reflects the spiritual emptiness which the story conveys, but it felt a little cold to me. I also found the switches between multiple camera angles, as well as Anna I’s addressing the camera (so breaking the fourth wall), a bit busy: these took me out of the theatrical performance rather than into it.

Finally, Weill’s piece itself, for me, proceeds a little too rapidly really to let the auditor become involved in the story. Something about the whole show keeps one at the surface. It’s a pleasant surface, but I’ll look forward to something more substantial with Beethoven’s Fidelio on 12 December—which I recommend you check out.

This was Opera North’s first attempt at something very new, and everyone involved deserves congratulations for so much success in about the most difficult conditions one can think of. I look forward to seeing how this new approach to performance develops in the upcoming livestream on 12 December, and perhaps in future productions, too—though I’m sure we all agree that it will be a fine thing when we can all safely rub shoulders together in the beautiful Leeds Grand Theatre again.

Charles Eager

Charles writes on classical music and opera.  He is co-author of Synkronos,  published in September 2017.

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