Atlanta Opera: The Seven Deadly Sins

When they announced it last season, I wondered how Atlanta Opera would present Kurt Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins” without a double-bill. Not a traditional opera, the work is only about 45 minutes long and was originally commissioned as a ballet. I wondered if they were going to pull what Atlanta Ballet did with “Twyla Tharp’s The Princess & the Goblin” and just present it as though it were an evening-length work or if they’d add some kind of warm-up act. They ended up doing the latter, presenting a pseudo-cabaret of songs from Weill’s other works.

For the most part, I thought the performers did an excellent job with the music. However, the overall production, directed by Brian Clowdus, is something that I probably wouldn’t remember at all if I weren’t writing this down now. The stage was a long runway that jutted out into the middle of the room with some small space capping it by the wall where entrances and exists were possible. The main audience – those seats that weren’t part of the premium set at tables – was angled toward the back wall such that most people would have to shift or crane their necks to see at least part of the stage. Since the ceiling at Le Maison Rouge isn’t as high as a normal theater’s this also meant that most of the seats had at least one light directed at eye level. As is almost always the case with theater-in-the-round, every seat is at some point a lousy seat but no seat is guaranteed to ever be a good seat if you don’t know the blocking ahead of time.

Probably the best seat to see everything, if you’re tall enough to see over everyone in front of you, would have been in the back-corner of the room, though you would have had a hard time hearing a good bit of the singing since it would be directed away from you more than half the time. My seat, in the front corner closest to the premium tables, wasn’t terrible, mind you, but my back was sore by the end of the show and there were a number of times where I had to look away from the action because the lights were focused in my eyes. I could hear most of the singing, even when directed off the other side of the stage, though there were times when Anna I was singing off the back of the peninsula towards the bar, where nobody was seated. During these moments I followed along on the monitor that was displaying the super-titles in the other direction.

Prior to the pseudo-cabaret, starting around 30 minutes before the scheduled curtain time (which was delayed about 15 minutes, as is the rather unprofessional and disrespectful custom in the Atlanta performing arts) the non-Anna performers filtered onto the stage and began stretching and chatting among themselves. It was a modestly clever bit of verfremdungseffekt, which would be more appropriate if Brecht had produced the work rather than just, begrudgingly, slapped together the libretto.

Continuing the theme, the pseudo-cabaret was presented as a warm-up while the cast waited for the show to begin. They went through most of the more famous parts of the Weill song-book and were mostly good, with each of the singers on stage taking a song. Because Anna I is the only sung female role and she was not on stage, the remaining female cast were mostly there as dancers and only one, Bryn Holdsworth, sang anything during this part.

There was a semi-narrative aspect to this, where they were sort of having a duel of songs, that was fun. Oddly, nothing was sung in German, though they did sing “Je Ne T’Aime Pas” and “Youkali” in French. Also odd, and somewhat disappointing, they favored pop/jazz variants of the songs, so instead of the German psycho-polka that is “Mack the Knife” in its original form, we got an over-polished voice singing the jazzy version a la Darren or Sinatra and we got the Doors version of “Alabama Song” rather than the full piece (for women) from “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.” The over-polished complaint applies to Holdsworth’s performance of “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” though she more than made up for it with a rousing “Pirate Jenny” in which she killed the men on the stage who had taunted her and the other women with “The Trouble with Women.”

While I enjoyed it, I can’t say that I was terribly enthused by being presented with a musical review. I think that the presentation was a bit too poppish, especially opting for the pop English versions of some of the German songs. More than that, though, I think that it just brought back bad memories of my days running lights for musical reviews during the summers when the various theater companies that I worked with were trying to raise money without spending terribly much of it. Even though I liked every song, I found myself wanting to go home and listen to some Crass or Circle Jerks to get the tunes out of my head, as I used to do after the repeated nights of having to light the ear-worms. To that extent, I think that if there had been a better selection of booze and I’d had a little buzz then I’d probably have had an easier time getting over myself and enjoying it more. (Seriously, though, they had no whiskey at all and the only white wines were champagne and prosecco, as though they had no respect for the fact that they were in the Southeastern United States. National Distributing Company surely made Michael C. Carlos roll in his grave with that little faux pas.)

After a half-hour intermission that was announced as being 15 minutes (which, along with the late start, gave the illusion of the evening’s entertainment being a full two hours), the main attraction started. Weill and Brecht’s allegory for the use of bourgeois notions of virtue to keep people beholden to a wage labor system that is about as virtuous as prostitution was performed very well by all involved. The staging, however, wasn’t all that great.

The choreography was like a sexually toned-down and technically simplified Fosse. I’m not sure if this was due to limitations of the choreographer, Meg Gillentine, who also played Anna II, or if this was because, although they did have three professional dancers on the stage, the cast was mostly made up of performers who specialize in operatic singing and not theatrical dance, limiting what Gillentine could realistically do. They also made heavy use of non-frosted mirrors on casters that were wheeled around and spun around frequently enough that if you were lucky enough to have a seat where you didn’t have a light shining directly into your eyes then you’d find one reflected into them anyway. No matter where you sat, the singing was generally not directed towards you. And, oddly, the character of Mother was in men’s clothing, making it so that there was no way to know that the character was the mother and taking away the absurdity both of having a male bass sing the role and of having her encourage her daughter’s career in exotic dancing and paid companionship.

All of this, however, didn’t detract from the fact that everyone performed what they were given very well. It’s by the strength of their performances that I was drawn in by the story and the music and didn’t notice my aching back until the end of the show. I certainly don’t regret going and I did enjoy a lot of what was on the stage, but ultimately I was unimpressed with the approach to the production. It’s a shame because I like the work a lot.

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