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March 3, 2008 | by  | in Music |
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The Lindbergh Flight and The Seven Deadly Sins

Transformation: from concert cantata and sung ballet, to opera – this was the miracle achieved by Opera National de Lyon under director Francois Girard (with the help of the NZ Opera Chorus and the NZSO under Jonathan Stockhammer).

The cantata The Lindbergh Flight was itself a transformation of a radio play celebrating the achievement – by man and machine – of the first flight over the Atlantic. For left-wing German playwright Bertolt Brecht it seemed to herald the promise of a better age. This first version had music by both Kurt Weill, Brecht’s collaborator on the popular Threepenny Opera, and also Paul Hindemith. Weill’s revised concert version used entirely his own music (not an improvement according to some of the 1929 critics, who missed the weight and atmosphere of Hindemith’s contributions).

Tenor Christian Baumgartel seemed rather underpowered as Charles Lindbergh. The stars here were the staging (including half an aeroplane fuselage) and the orchestra. Projected images conjured, at various times, waves, fog, and a storm lashing the windscreen.

Despite its aim to reach a mass audience (originally by radio), only one or two of the 15 short segments (such as the spiky second number) employed the jaunty jazzy idiom that made The Threepenny Opera such a hit. Much of the music was in a more austere neoclassical style of quasi-Bach pseudo-fugues, reflecting perhaps the influence of Weill’s teacher Busoni, as well as his admiration for Stravinsky.

Closer to the Brecht and Weill we all know, The Seven Deadly Sins was their last (1933) collaboration. Initially a work for one singer and one dancer (representing respectively the conscientious and spontaneous sides of the heroine Anna), together with male vocal quartet and orchestra, the resources of this production were expanded to include seven female dancers (one for each “sin”) and several male break-dancers. With the splendidly graphic exception of Lust (which left little to the imagination), most of the sins were represented in an abstract, stylized way – more in keeping with Brecht’s own scenario written for Weill, than with the printed Synopsis drafted by other hands.

Soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin’s interpretation of Anna I was a tour-de-force: singing the part at the high pitch as Weill first intended it, she nevertheless managed to incorporate the raunchy cabaret elements introduced by Lotte Lenya – so we got the best of both worlds.

Each of these works, composed as they were of short sections, were episodic. This fitted well with Brecht’s theatrical alienation philosophy, but made for slow moving drama – literally so, in The Lindbergh Flight, as the plane edged its way across the stage. In The Seven Deadly Sins, however, the Epilogue harked back to the Prologue to make for a curiously touching conclusion.

It’s great that the Festival is staging some lesser-known works. Dare we hope for more unperformed, or rarely seen, New Zealand operas? Or 20th century European landmarks such as Lulu, or Matka (in my dreams…).

Meanwhile, look out for more Kurt Weill songs (in the vein of “Mack the Knife” and “Pirate Jenny”) in the Festival, from our own Janet Roddick (Pacific Blue Festival Club, March 12, 13 at 7.30 pm.

By Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht
New Zealand International Arts Festival
St James Theatre, Feb 23, 25, 26

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