EMAV Review: Seven Deadly Sins & Erwutang sing @ Cockroach Theatre & Sin City Opera



★★★★☆ - Delicious

Composers Kurt Weill and Arnold Schoenberg aren’t generally paired together as part of an operatic double bill. But the subject matter of this evening presents multiple perspectives on women’s lives, and the cabaret approach to opera links the two pieces for a Delicious Four Star experience for contemporary American audiences.

Both pieces are sung in English — and supertitles make it even easier for audiences to understand what’s being sung. “Seven Deadly Sins” features piano and percussion accompaniment; “Erwartung” is scored for piano and winds.

The Seven Deadly Sins, music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht

Like few others, the names Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht are synonymous with the radical politics and cultural innovation of the Weimar Republic. Most famously with their hit Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), but also with numerous other collaborative pieces, the duo represented everything that the Nazi regime declared its enemy. The Jewish Weill and the Marxist Brecht were two of the earliest and most obvious targets of Nazi cultural oppression.

As Darren Weller notes: “A product of this personal and global upheaval, "The Seven Deadly Sins" is a scathing satire of capitalism told through the lens of exile: a family exiled from their dreams by poverty and a daughter exiled from her home as she struggles to lift her family into the middle class…”

Brecht's story became one of the greatest satires of modern music. A young woman -- represented by the practical Anna I (sung by Dina Emerson) and the impulsive, flighty Anna II (danced by Anastasia Weiss) -- leaves her two brothers and parents and sets off on a seven year, seven city jaunt across the United States to make enough money to buy her family a little house in Louisiana. Temptation and torment are constant bedfellows and Anna finds herself torn between her pious past and the thrill of the future.

In each city, Anna II succumbs to one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and has to be reined in by the sensible Anna I, so that their ultimate goal can be achieved. The massive irony is that this goal is by no means virtuous. To make their fortune, men are seduced, robbed, blackmailed and driven to suicide by the two Anna's.

Brecht's message is clear. Capitalist ambition is the greatest Deadly Sin, and ultimately, in a capitalist world, the wages of such sins are success.

This is quintessential Weill: driving rhythms, discordant harmonies, and his unusual orchestrations. Though scored for soprano (Anna I) and male singing quartet (the family), in this production the four family members are all played by women – extending the parody of a society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.

Director Darren Weller effectively captures the essence of cabaret and provocative theatre which flourished during the Golden Age of the Weimar Republic (1924-1929), and its new satirical works, including political plays like Brecht’s which confronted audiences.

The talented performance ensemble handled both the acting and vocal challenges with ease, flowing naturally between powerfully operatic moments into tender theatrical interludes. The ever-present family quartet -- Rabuel Aviles (Mother), Casey Dukas (Brother), Kim Glover (Father), and Nicole Harris (Brother) -- effortlessly balanced their choral, set change and costume quick changes. The two Anna's -- Anna I (mezzo-soprano Dina Emerson) and Anna II (dancer/choreographer Anastasia Weiss) – revealed their unique creative talents while remaining joined at the hip dramatically.

Erwartung (Expectation), music by Arnold Schoenberg and libretto by Marie Pappenheim

In this monologue for Soprano by modernist master Arthur Schoenberg, with original libretto by Marie Pappenheim, Erwartung ("Expectation" is the best English translation) is the archetypal expressionist work, and one of the high-water marks of musical modernism. The protagonist of this taut, half-hour drama is an unnamed woman, who wanders through a moonlit forest, looking for her lover who, it seems, has betrayed her. Eventually she finds his blood-stained body, but who has killed him, and for what reason, remains unclear.

In her Director’s Note, Kate St-Pierre says: “I was moved to direct this piece due to its intense dissidence and the journey the main character, the Woman, takes throughout its brief narrative....The composer and librettist created a text which effectively obscures the boundaries between the protoganist’s conscious and unconscious thoughts, hence confusing the audience’s perception of reality and illusion.”

Schoenberg projects this allusive, psychologically wracked fable in a single continuous span. The soprano writing for the Woman is immensely taxing, demanding a huge vocal range and sometimes a Wagnerian power and authority. There are occasional repeated motifs and rhythmic patterns, but no long-range musical links. It is the drama, finally, that binds the teeming score together.

Rebecca Morris (The Woman) has a rich, powerful soprano sound and commanding stage presence well-suited to this solo performance. Mychal Fox (The Man), is a formidable though silent manifestation of her lover. Director Kate St-Pierre adeptly balances the maelstroms of perception against the flights of fantasy, the conscious and the subconscious, throughout.

The small instrumental ensemble handled the operatic compositions with ease and was well-suited to supporting the vocalists in the intimate Art Square Theatre: Dean Balan (conductor/musical director), Christin Nance (flute) and Manny Gamazo (percussion).

Production elements were well-matched to the cabaret style of these operatic pieces, including: lighting by Ellen Bone, sets by Alexia Chen, projections by Rakitha Perera, and costumes by Ginger Land-van Buuren.

“It’s a true co-production,” according to Ginger Land-van Buuren (also Executive Director of Sin City Opera), with Cockroach Theatre Company choosing the directors (Weller for “The Seven Deadly Sins,” Kate St-Pierre for “Erwartung”), who then brought in their own artistic teams. Sin City made sure that “the opera elements are guarded and protected,” she adds. “It’s a wonderful, seamless, easy co-production.”

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