Cooperative ventures among theater and music departments within universities as well as with other institutions make for strong presentations and fertile cross breeding of audiences. A fine example of such programs was the production of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's The Seven Deadly Sins on March 8 and 9, 2006, in the University of North Carolina's Kenan Theatre, the studio space within the UNC Center for Dramatic Art. This free production was a joint project of Duke and UNC's music departments, along with UNC's theater department, involving both faculty and students.
Kurt Weill had already worked with Bertolt Brecht on a number of projects (most notably, The Threepenny Opera in 1928 and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in 1929) before they collaborated on Die sieben Todsünden in 1933. Although the two had somewhat rocky relations at that point, they still wanted to work on a project that would continue their break with established German music and theater.
The work, commissioned as a dance piece with song, premiered in Paris with choreography by George Balanchine. It was he who came up with the idea of a story about the two sides of a woman (Anna I and II), one sung and one danced. Weill and Brecht evolved the idea into a satire on American life in which the woman spends seven years trying to make money to send home to her poor family. Each of the seven years is spent in a different U.S. city, each representing one of the traditional Seven Deadly Sins.
Although Brecht's libretto did not stipulate any specific staging, Balanchine's version was quite elaborate, with a large cast and detailed scenery. But the piece works in many other guises, from concert versions to modest theatrical mountings. The latter was the approach taken by UNC director Julie Fishell, using the confines of the Kenan Theatre to concentrate focus on the two Annas: UNC music faculty member Terry Rhodes (I) and dance teacher and choreographer Jessi Knight Walker, a Duke graduate (II). Fishell had the two Annas constantly circling, each wary of the opposite personality trying to exert control. The pair played off each other confidently, their movements and emotions well rehearsed
Rhodes employed the original soprano version of the score, a revelation to those used to virtually every other performance and recording, which have been transposed down a fourth in concession to Lotte Lenya's portrayals. While there is no denying the raw power of the music in that range, it's much more in line with the creators' distancing, topsy-turvy style to have Anna I – the practical, calculating one – sung in a sweetly pure, non-vulgar way. Rhodes deployed exemplary diction, allowing the English translation by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman to be distinctly heard. She also maintained a frighteningly maniacal demeanor throughout, as her character coldly admonished her other half to do whatever it took to make money with her body. Likewise, Walker was wonderfully lithe and precise in her dance movements, nicely balancing the purity of the character's morals with its overtly sensuous expression.
Backing them up as "the family" were UNC faculty members Stafford Wing (Father) and Timothy Sparks (Brother 2), along with UNC students Jonathan Nussman (Brother I) and Nicholas Nguyen (Mother). If this last sounds strange, it was yet another distancing measure by the creators to have the part sung by a male voice. Nguyen gets credit for not camping it up yet managing to give the part a feminine flavor. Together they made an impressive quartet, singing many pages of difficult harmonies that often crossed madrigal with barbershop. Sparks got to shine in several high-flying tenor lines and Wing demonstrated his long experience in creating a role vocally and physically. All four used scores disguised as large Bibles but it did not interfere with the staging.
Although the piece calls for an orchestra, Duke faculty member Jane Hawkins made one almost forget the lack of Weill's quirky scoring; her sharply rhythmic and precisely accurate playing caught all the nuances of the dance rhythms (waltz, foxtrot) as well as the several lyrical sections.
Despite some moments when the on-stage baby grand became too loud, and despite some messiness in the staging of the family's scenes (not as cleanly focused as the Annas), the production was most satisfying, receiving roars and strong applause at end of the March 9 performance.
As the piece only took about half an hour to perform, Duke musicologist Bryan Gilliam gave a half-hour lecture immediately afterwards, with musical examples repeated by the performers. Gilliam spoke about the work's musical structure and the historical context of its composition. The lecture was informative but was marred by some gratuitous self-congratulation and appeals for more approval from an already demonstrative crowd.
This production's level of achievement certainly makes the case for continued collaborative efforts between Duke and UNC, to the benefit of both their own constituents and the general public.