Imagine a Vitaphone all-singing, all-dancing program of satirical sermons given in a neo-Gothic church to 500 enthusiasts on a happening Saturday night. A staged contest between pagan gods, scored by one of Western music’s most devout Lutherans precedes a 1930s screed against capitalist values that takes an early Christian concept of sin as its chief metaphor. Is this a fever dream or a stroke of theatrical genius?
Perhaps a little of both. The word “eclectic” doesn’t seem broad enough to encompass Emmanuel Music’s programming choices in its latest outing, “Bach Reinvented: Weill and Bach,” given on April 9th in at Emmanuel Church in Boston. The double-bill of J.S. Bach’s The Contest Between Phoebus and Pan, BWV 201 and Kurt Weill’s “ballet-chanté” The Seven Deadly Sins revealed a less-known sides of both composer’s personalities—“Papa” Bach as the arch, self-aware humorist engaged in cultural politics, with Weill as the would-be moralist. The addition of Urbanity Dance company, choreographed by company Director Betsi Graves, added a dimension of visual interest, resulting in a sometimes-thrilling, sometimes baffling evening of bold gestures and thought-provoking juxtapositions and sex reversals.
Baritone David Kravitz stood-out comically as Pan, giving a cartoonishly gleeful rendering of the mischievous god’s ode to dancing and jumping, before stalwart Frank Kelly brightly and hilariously advocated much of a case for Pan’s beast pleasing strains. Baritone Dana Whiteside’s somewhat covered Phoebus might not have won the contest had I been the judge, though his character more pleased the gallery gods. The chorus and orchestra opened with great delight in the Magnificat-like “Retreat ye Whirling Winds.” If the overall effect was nothing like Zimerman’s coffee house where the work premiered in 1729, Emmanuel Music’s warm and modern approach to Bach as ever, placed its audience in a comfortable embrace which might have been equally gemütlich.
In Seven Deadly Sins, mezzo-soprano Lynn Torgove made a striking figure as Anna I, clad, like her dancer counterpart and alter ego Anna II (Meghan Anderson), in a fire-engine red dress with a plunging neckline. Her dark vocals and animated facial expressions suggested a kinship with Brecht’s righteously indignant worldview, although we might have gotten more from her performance had she been able to project with brighter tone. Perhaps in an attempt to convey the portentous resonance of Weill’s music, she seemed to swallow her diction with the result that the sound got caught in the throat, making it all-but-impossible to understand anything her character was saying—whether in German or English. She was not alone in her unintelligibility, however—a combination of the orchestra’s place in the resonant nave of the cavernous Emmanuel Church and the sheer size of the ensemble seemed to win the battle against all the vocalists’ enunciations. It was only when the barbershop quartet (sung in watertight harmony by tenor Matthew Anderson, Kelley, Kravitz and Whiteside) moved to the balcony nearest my seat in the pews that I was able to consistently understand the text. This was a particular shame owing to the lack of supertitles. (In a recent interview with BMInt, Graves and Turner remarked that didn’t provide supertitles because the recitatives and spoken text would be in English, and the movement would explain the story. While this may have been true of the Bach, it was less applicable to Weill. It is difficult to choreograph the subtleties of irony, and the loss of Brecht’s text was deeply felt.)
The orchestra, conducted with finesse by Emmanuel Music Artistic Director Ryan Turner responded to the wildly divergent demands of Bach and Weill with ease. While their graceful, restrained interpretation did not lack variety and color, it was in the Weill that they seemed to enjoy themselves the most, though I would debate whether they developed the grittiness that more idiomatic readings convey. Only in the ghoulishly lighted male quartet with guitar accompaniment did the feeling of cabaret come across. Listen to Pabst’s 1931 movie version of the Three Penny Opera for an appreciation of a more decadent approach to Weill.
Despite the logistical challenges inherent to creating an immersive, 360-degree theatrical experience in a space filled with raised platforms and perpendicular pews, Emmanuel Church provided an evocative, at times thrillingly transgressive space in which to stage these none-too-holy works. Chris Fournier’s lighting showcased and heightened the drama inherent to the church’s high-ecclesiastic structure. Though economical, it featured a few witty touches, such as shining a blue spotlight on the bas-relief of the Last Supper during the “Gluttony” movement in Seven Deadly Sins. Red lights shining on the church’s chandelier’s cast eerie shadows across the church’s stone walls suggesting the fire and brimstone surrounding such sanctified spaces.