If the countless works of the duo Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill have one striking feature, it is their ability to mask immense social criticism through intelligent and witty writing.
While Brecht’s socialist attitude was never a secret and was especially in his later works openly portrayed in a rather moralising way, his collaboration with Weill retain a unique character. Both pieces of the Royal Opera’s explosive new double bill were written around the time of the world’s economic crisis of 1929. While the Mahagonny Songspiel, written in 1927, somehow foreshadows the following event and thematises the irresistible decline of the existing social classes,
The Seven Deadly Sins feature the young Anna’s journey through seven American cities, each personifies one of the seven deadly biblical sins. Despite this very direct moral appeal to the audience, the duo manages to pack their razor-sharp social criticism into a lively plot (especially in The Seven Deadly Sins), which is only underlined by Weill’s sometimes even caricaturistic music. While Bertolt Brecht in his plays often used songs as a part of the so called Verfremdungseffekt (purposely interrupting the story line of the play in order to create a critical distance between the audience and the portrayed actions on stage), the music in the unique forms of the Songspiel and the ballet chanté takes a much more important role here, which doesn’t fail to contribute to the wit of the evening.
Once again it becomes clear that the problems that Brecht and Weill wanted to feature in the 1930s haven’t at all lost actuality. It is just a matter of interpretation. Director Isabelle Kettle fantastically manages to merge the portraiture of the biblical sins with our modern-day issues. The journey through the USA becomes a young singer’s journey (starting in her dressing room) through exploitation, struggle with eating and personality disorder (brilliantly shown through the protagonist’s constant desire to take selfies for social media). The protagonist Anna is played by a singer (Stephanie Wake-Edwars with a beautifully resonating, dark mezzo-soprano and a great German diction) as well as by a dancer (Jonadette Carpio with an impressively intense body language and a great acting talent). While the singer who tells the story stays mainly in the dressing room, the dancer beautifully plays out the mentioned scenarios on the empty stage of the Royal Opera. Whenever the expression through singing reaches its limits, the choreography (Julia Cheng, often including modern dance styles against Weill’s 1930s music) finds an adequate addition, and vice versa. It is not really a doubling of the character, but more an extension, which contributes to an enormously complex portrayal of the young female character in the brutal world of the arts industry.
While the previous piece focused mainly on the female destiny, the following Mahagonny Songspiel then features the male point of view. It starts off with the exact same group of four men (the powerful ensemble with Filipe Manu, Egor Zhuravskii, Dominic Sedgwick, and Blaise Malaba) that represented the masculine society responsible for Anna’s decline in the first piece. After the struggle of a young female artist, it’s their turn to show a crisis of masculinity. Yet despite Thomasin Gülgeç’s wonderful flow in his dancing and Kseniia Nikolaieva who supported Stephanie Wake-Edwards in an interesting canon version of the song Moon of Alabama,this part of the production failed to sustain the necessary dramatic tension. This might have been because the Mahagonny Songspiel cycle of songs is more fragmentary. After a strong storyline in the first part, the second part seemed more like a song recital with a little more movement than usual. However, the quirky sarcasm in Weill’s music, fantastically implemented by conductor Michael Papadopoulos and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, could then be enjoyed even better.