The Decades Project: Seven Deadly Sins. Toronto Symphony Orchestra with Wallis Giunta (mezzo) and Peter Oundjian (conductor). Roy Thomson Hall. June 14, 2016.
The Decades Project: 1930-1939, a TSO-AGO collaborative effort, dominates the June programming with three notable concerts. We’ve already heard Sir Andrew Davis returning for Belshazzar’s Feast a couple of weeks ago. This week it’s Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins, and the series concludes next week with Orff’s Carmina Burana.
Last evening was the opening of the second in the series. It’s a very interesting and eclectic program, with Kurt Weill’s edgy work as the centrepiece, juxtaposed with the super-romantic Adagio for Strings by American composer Samuel Barber, as well as Bela Bartok’s strikingly original Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.
The concert opened with Kiwetin-acahkos (North Star): Fanfare for the People of the North, composed by First Nations composer Andrew Balfour. To be honest, it’s hard to offer anything more than just quick impressions — two minutes go by too fast! I find it evocative of the great outdoors, of nature, quite economical in its structure and palette of orchestral colours. It ended so abruptly that it felt like someone flipped a switch. I wished it had gone on longer!
It was followed by Barber, and I was struck by the curious similarities in the orchestral texture of the two, as if the ending of the Balfour and the beginning of the Barber was meant to be. Hard to believe there are 80 years separating the two. In his time, Barber was thought of as old-fashioned and regressive. While there was a stampede towards serialism and atonality, he was staunchly lyrical and romantic. Guess who has withstood the test of time? The TSO strings were simply marvellous here – it’s like balm on the soul.
Compared to Barber, the Bartok piece is a totally different kettle of fish — uh, should I say notes. If it sounds vaguely familiar to you, it might be because quite a lot of it has been used in various movies, including Being John Malkovich and The Shining. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve always find Bartok’s music to be aesthetically somewhat cold and unsettling, and this piece is a perfect example. There are moments in the score that give me a strong sense of foreboding, quite an interesting contrast to the Samuel Barber before. Conductor Peter Oundjian mentioned that the piece touches the heart — interesting! That shows that music — and music criticism — is by nature subjective, the same work can elicit a variety of reactions among the listeners. Your mileage may vary, as they say.
After the intermission during which Eastman school professor Kim Kowalke, head of the Kurt Weill Foundation, spoke eloquently about the social and historical context of The Seven Deadly Sins, we settled back in our seats for the 35-minute “sung ballet.” This semi-staged production was in development last year at the Banff Centre, with the same creative team headed by Canadian stage director Joel Ivany, the artistic director of Against the Grain Theatre.
Seven Deadly Sins was quite the cutting-edge work for its time (1933), composed when Europe was in social and political turmoil; the economies were in shambles. In the very few times I’ve seen this work, it has always struck me as a period piece, best understood within its social and historical context, i.e. the rise of National Socialism in Germany in the 1930’s. It’s also worth noting that Weill’s conception of America was not based on firsthand knowledge — he had never set foot in America at that time.
That said, how different is it from the other Eurocentric composers like Mozart’s vision of the Middle East in Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, or Puccini in his depiction of the “ethnographic other” in Madama Butterfly and Turandot? The Weill piece may seem quaint, fanciful, even artificial, but given the current world (especially American) political climate, with the rise of Trumpism, of Alt-Right, etc., it has unexpected contemporary resonances.
Simply put, it’s the story of Anna I (and her doppelganger Anna II) leaving home in Louisiana to make money to support their family back home. They travel to seven cities, and in the process, they succumb to the “seven deadly sins” of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, anger, and pride. The libretto is by Bertolt Brecht, a self-declared communist, and the piece is a thinly veiled social commentary on the evils of capitalism. The TSO production is subtly faithful to that central tenet. The brilliant use of black and white film sequences helped put it back to vaguely the time of the Great Depression.
The presence of the translations, projected on two huge video screens, helped the non-German speaking audience tremendously. The orchestra was upstage, with sufficient staging area downstage. Choreographer/dancer Jennifer Nichols was Anna II. Anna I was Canadian mezzo Wallis Giunta. There’s an uncanny resemblance between the two women — they could be twins! The male quartet was made up of tenors Isaiah Bell and Own McCausland, baritone Geoffrey Sirrett and bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus. Given they are not trained dancers, kudos to all five for going above and beyond what can be expected. I found my eyes riveted on them the whole time, when I wasn’t trying to decipher the text on the video screen. The orchestra receded completely into the background! They played marvelously, needless to say.
I should mention that the singers were individually miked. I noticed it the moment Anna I started to sing, sounding unusually big! Yes, voice amplification is considered verboten in opera, but given the intricate choreography, it was a justified decision. Top vocal honours went to Giunta, whose high mezzo sounded fantastic, and she sang with impeccable German — her tenure at Oper Leipzig has helped her honed her German in no uncertain terms. And I’d be remiss if I don’t give my strongest kudos to Jennifer Nichols, who was simply amazing as the dancer and choreographer. I’ve only seen this piece live in concert twice, and this TSO performance has greater immediacy. I also liked that it’s not blatantly political. Brecht’s work can be too polemical and hard hitting. What we got was just the right dose — Bravi tutti!
The second and last performance is this evening, 8:00 p.m. at Roy Thomson Hall. Don’t miss it!