in: Reviews

October 5, 2015

Yes BU Had No Ballet

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It is not often that one gets to see a live, much less a staged performance of the last collaboration between Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, their 1933 “sung ballet” Die sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins). For that reason alone, we can be grateful to the BU College of Fine Arts, which produced it over the past weekend at the black box (the exhaustingly named Stewart F. Lane-Bonnie Comley Studio 210) of the BU Theater as the initial program of the BU Fringe Festival.

The work has an interesting history, though you’d never know it from the negligible information provided in the almost-impossible-to-access program book furnished only by way of a third-party website that won’t even allow downloading of the file (there were even advertisements in the program—hope the advertisers weren’t charged for them, since no one will ever have them in hand). Both the authors had left Germany after the Nazi accession—Weill because he was a Jew, Brecht because he was politically unacceptable. They settled in Paris and Switzerland, respectively, Brecht after a number of peregrinations that eventually inspired his scenario for Deadlies. Weill received a commission from dancer and poet Boris Kochno and poet and art promoter Edward James, the latter then married to Tilly Losch, a ballerina for whom he had formed a dance company and for whom the work was intended. As it happened, Losch bore a resemblance to Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya, whom James knew Weill wanted to write into the piece. James and Weill therefore agreed that the scenario would call for the singer and dancer to be coordinated onstage, from which Weill got the idea of a dual protagonist, referred to as sisters but yet a single person with two personalities. Weill then summoned Brecht, and the two of them came up with a picaresque morality play about selling-out to earn life’s necessities.

For some reason, the authors chose the United States as their setting, though at this time neither had ever been here (they both eventually settled here, Weill permanently and Brecht until he made the fateful mistake of following his ideology to become the caged canary of East Germany). The plot idea is basic: the “sisters,” the levelheaded singer Anna 1 and the impetuous dancer Anna 2 come from a grubby and abusive Louisiana family, and seek to raise the funds to build a little home there (touchingly represented in this production by a small model Anna 2 keeps in her suitcase). They sally off to seven different cities, in which she/they serially succumb to the titular transgressions—sometimes their own, sometimes those of their surroundings. Anna 2 is devastated; Anna 1 keeps her eyes on the prize. The original production, in Paris, was staged and choreographed by George Balanchine, who was the artistic director of Losch’s company. The commonly used English translation by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman preserves Brecht’s taut tartness but hilariously leaves in a reference to schnitzel as among the delicacies the sisters look forward to enjoying in their Louisiana home. There’s even a bit of local color: one of the scenes takes place in Boston (the sin in question is lust, clearly underlining the authors’ ignorance of the venue).

Among the strong points of the BU production, the strongest was surely the singing, foremost that of Emily Spencer as Anna 1 (she and Alexandra Rodrick, who took Anna 2 at Sunday’s performance, alternated roles—perhaps some of our readers can comment on the latter’s musical contributions). Spencer has a fine ringing mezzo and reasonably good enunciation, though affecting a southern accent was a mistake—we wonder if Lenya put on a broad Bavarian accent for the premiere. The excellent male quartet embodying Anna’s family included the drolly scored bass as “Mother,” ably sung by Joseph Hubbard, and resonant tenor John David Nevergall as Father, together with tenor Matthew Corcoran and baritone Benjamin C. Taylor as brothers. Brecht drew on his own upbringing to create the homey yet sinister moral platitudes that the family intones throughout, and Weill set them as distorted chorales, which the men snarled out with hypocritical piety.

The set for Seven Deadly Sins

The set for Seven Deadly Sins

No one danced in this “sung ballet.” As nothing in Rodrick’s or Spencer’s bios suggests dance training, stage director Jim Petosa chose to go instead with standard stage business. There were some felicitous moments, though, including some agile juggling of suitcases by the chorus, the valises, in various configurations, comprising the entirety of the set (intelligent but light work for scenic designer Jonathan Berg-Einhorn). The lighting by Gifford Williams was effective and occasionally pointed, as in the flickering lights for Anna’s stint as a movie extra in Hollywood. The costuming by Megan Mills was basic but suitable. Refinement of character development was not Brecht’s long suit, and in this particular piece he came down heavily on the side of cartoonish exaggeration; it was therefore not surprising that Petosa had his performers mugging shamelessly. Meanwhile, Rodrick was a delight, with an expressive face and shining eyes offsetting her rather rudimentary movements; her dialogue consisted almost exclusively of responding “right, Anna” to her sister, but she was able to vary her expression adequately to the situation.

The music was, sadly, the weak side of this staging. For openers, this was, truth be told, not Weill’s best score. It has a lot of the sound one expects from classic Weill, acrid harmonies and staccato rhythms (though not nearly as biting as in The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny or the Threepenny Opera), but the melodic inspiration was often lacking, most of the scenes consisting of wan put-downs of popular styles (waltzes in a strip club? seriously?). We could find only one decent tune—Anna’s aria of misplaced love in Boston. On top of that, instead of using Weill’s chamber orchestration—certainly not too populous for the theater space—music director William Lumpkin chose a two-piano (Lumpkin and Matthew Larson) and percussion (Dylan Barber) arrangement by Canadian composer and former NEC Opera Department chair John Greer, which was clunky and dynamically monotonous, and for Lumpkin, under-rehearsed.

All that said, the overall impact of the show was positive, and at under an hour in total, a productive use of time in getting to know this music-theater rarity.

Vinkensport, or The Finch Opera by David T. Little follows next weekend.

1 Comment

  1. Whether Lenya used a Bavarian accent or not has no bearing on the choice another singer should make. One wonders….but one doesn’t care. She’s creating a role and makes her choices as an artist must.

    Re setting Lust in Boston, was Brecht unaware of Boston’s reputation or perfectly aware of it? Just wondering.

    Comment by Raymond — October 11, 2015 at 5:57 am

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