Brecht/Weill: The Seven Deadly Sins

Livingston, Pollock, Company Chordelia, Scottish Opera/Jessica Cottis

HMV Picture House, Edinburgh, 1 September 20113 stars

Scottish Opera

Was it as long ago as 2008 that the Edinburgh International Festival opened with Brecht & Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny? It was an acutely resonant choice at the time, and the intervening years have done nothing to dispel the idea that these excoriating critics of interwar decadence have something to say to the present generation.

Meanwhile, in a piquant gesture, Scottish Opera, absent from this year's EIF programme, have nevertheless asserted their presence with this fringe production of The Seven Deadly Sins. Let me count the ways in which it is piquant. Though the idea of an 'official fringe' is something of an oxymoron for traditionalists, the official fringe finished at the weekend. Nevertheless, the chosen venue, the HMV Picture House, is outside the normal circuit for the classical community. Indeed, it is located in clubland, where older Edinburghers—at the weekends at least—fear to tread. And then there is the scale: Seven Deadly Sins lasts about three-quarters of an hour; in this production it is preceded by an informal showing of period movies.

(Since there are more Edinburgh shows on 3 September, it is worth mentioning that doors open 40 minutes before the show goes up, and good seats in the cabaret-style layout are at a premium. The same probably goes for Glasgow performances on 31 August and 1 September.)

All in all, this is a welcome enterprise, original and adventurous. An unusual dimension of this score is that it was conceived and commissioned as a 'ballet chanté'. Accordingly, Scottish Opera has collaborated with the dance theatre group Company Chordelia, whose artistic director Kally Lloyd-Jones follows Balanchine and MacMillan among others in choreographing this production. The conceit is that Anna I and Anna II—respectively singer and dancer—are simultaneously sisters and aspects of a single individual, so that the sins are both externalized for critique, and internalized for self-evaluation. Of course, the text being Brecht's, the conception of 'sin' is a means for satirizing bourgeois mores, so that, for instance, Anna's 'anger' is anger directed at exploitative bosses; her 'lust' at a romantic lover at the expense of a wealthy lover.

As she/they travel from city to city, their adventures are contextualized by their continuing relationship with the parents and brothers remaining behind in "Louisiana", to whom they are sending money. "Louisiana", because Brecht's acquaintance with the depression-era USA where the fable is set, is somewhat slight—though modern in the sense of being evidently acquired through watching movies. Accordingly, the journey takes Anna/s from Memphis to Los Angeles to Philadelphia, and so on, without any obvious narrative significance (there's no New York, and no New Orleans).

Onstage, the all-male family chorus is amusingly led by David Morrison's Mother. His resemblance to the farmer in Grant Wood's American Gothic is neatly complemented by dressing him as the daughter, while, on the left half of the stage, the cottage stands behind in a bare frame that also echoes an Amish barn in the process of construction, awaiting the funds Anna sends to permit its completion. At the other side, an urban boudoir is shared by the two Annas; unfortunately space constraints leave little room for Kirsty Pollock to flourish as the dancing Anna. Her interactions with Peter Baldwin in the variety of male dance roles are correspondingly restricted, with perhaps an overreliance on mime.

Fortunately Nadine Livingston commands attention as the singing Anna, although the text could really do with a better translation. While Auden and Kalman's rendition is undoubtedly elegant, it seldom fits the music with the hand-in-glove synergy with which Weill matches Brecht's German.

In the pit, finally, a surprisingly large orchestra for the venue – though in reality quite a modest band, with 6/6/4/3/2 strings and double or single winds – is given shrewd and lively direction by Jessica Cottis, who on this showing is clearly a star on the rise.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Scottish Opera

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