Opera Review – The Seven Deadly Sins

Here’s my review of last week’s show, now posted on Opera Britannia’s website.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

There cannot be many opera venues where it is possible to buy ear-plugs behind the bar. However, such was Scottish Opera‘s quest for novelty that we found ourselves in a venue more usually known as a rock venue in Glasgow than for ballet chanté. This was the first outing in Glasgow for a production that had opened a couple of days earlier in Edinburgh as a Fringe offering, Scottish Opera being no longer included in the official programme. The venue itself turned out to be the least of our worries; however, the production itself had plenty of its own.

To begin with, it must be acknowledged that Brecht and Weillâ’s Die sieben Todsünden (here given in English) is a difficult and problematic piece. Two characters play Anna I and Anna II. They are described both as being sisters, one of another, and also as being representations of the same personality. One mainly dances, one mainly sings. In the original production, this conceit came about because of the close resemblance of Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife and the first Anna I) and Tilly Losch (principal dancer and the first Anna II). This resemblance must have made some sense of this strange split character. The fact that Anna I and Anna II looked entirely unalike in Scottish Opera’s production didn’t help an already confusing work.

Then, there was the libretto. Scottish Opera can’t be blamed for the fact that the words of this translation don’t fit well to the music – that fault lies fairly and squarely at the door or W H Auden and Chester Kallman. However, they can be held accountable for choosing not to use Brecht’s original German text, which in my opinion would have been infinitely preferable.

Having made the decision to use a poor English translation, somewhere along the way there must have been some concern that the audience might not hear the words. What else could explain the giant sized side-titles that were projected at the extreme right and extreme left of the stage? In the event, the words were all enunciated pretty well and there was no danger of missing what was being sung at all. These side screens were an obvious distraction to the stage business and could have been put to far better use. They might have profitably been used to announce which of the sins was being explored. As it was, the sins were chalked on a clapperboard which was snapped shut now and then but from the back of the auditorium it was not immediately clear what was written on it. Indeed, for the first ten or fifteen minutes it was not clear by what was happening on stage which sin was in the spotlight. Once one can’t distinguish one sin from another, one can feel the whole evening slipping away.

Director/choreographer Kally Lloyd-Jones had the interesting idea to stage this as though Anna I was directing a film of her life. However this wasn’t really carried though to its obvious conclusions and was more clearly explained in the programme notes than in any of the stage direction. Despite the availability of large video screens, there was no use of video at all. It might have been interesting had the film that was apparently being shot on stage also been available to the audience on the screens by the side of the stage.

The young soprano Nadine Livingstone was perhaps miscast as Anna I. She has a good voice, as was obvious in Scottish Opera’s recent Rigoletto. However she did not appear to have been encouraged to bring anything new in tone to the piece at hand. Kurt Weill’s score demands something a good deal more bitter and acid than anything Miss Livingstone managed to offer. Her voice is pure, simple and very beautiful. However, it was as though a nineteenth-century ingenue had somehow stumbled into a situation that was a long way outside her comprehension or capability. She sounded pleasant enough, but the truth is, pleasant isn’t really enough to do justice to this role. In the event, the main thing that she managed to convey was a sense of bewilderment, most palpable amongst the audience at the final semi-blackout with which the show ended.

Weill calls for four male singers as the family, who are constantly on stage representing a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the progress of Anna though the world. Best of this bunch was David Morrison who was singing the part of Mother. His voice did have integrity and purpose and seemed to be holding an otherwise muddy quartet together. However, there were some serious problems of intonation within this family, who did not always seem to be listening to one another.

It seemed very odd that vocally, Kally Lloyd-Jones settled for a very English received pronunciation, even for the spoken words. One wondered why. Where did she think we were?  So much for the chant, what about the ballet?

 

Kirsty Pollock was an interesting Anna II whilst various male roles were danced by Peter Baldwin. One suspects that had there been any space on the stage, then the potential elegance and grace of the dancers might have brought the evening to life. As it was, the large stage was so cluttered that it was difficult for them to get much of a look in.

Down in the pit, a larger than expected orchestra did not seem to be paying a great deal of attention to their conductor Jessica Cottis. However, her facial expression and body movement did provide the most striking drama of the whole show.

Weill’s piece lasts less than three quarters of an hour. Scottish Opera tried to pad this out with some ineffectual period-piece films shown before the performance. One of the inherent weaknesses of the work is that each sin gets less than six minutes and generally speaking, if sin is really going to be enjoyable it needs a good deal more time than Weill allows. In this production, by the time it was clear which sin was being committed (or avoided) the action had moved on and any mental space to be either shocked or moved was long gone. Ultimately, this production might have felt more satisfying if it had been the more innovative half of a double bill.

Not for the first time, the fear rises that perhaps the most creative department within Scottish Opera is in fact the marketing department. This show was an easy sell out in Glasgow, although it is slightly more tricky to sell tickets in Edinburgh when the rest of the Fringe is still in full fling. The production was backed up by exemplary social marketing – Facebook and Twitter were all abuzz. However, if we are in the business of talking about sins, then I have a confession to make. I think that when the marketing department is showing greater creativity than what is on offer on stage then it is not opera heaven we are heading for but somewhere considerably more frightening.

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