However cavalier people can be about social distancing in the real world, it has had a profound effect on the way this year’s specially-created online opera offerings have looked, with directors and performers coming up with ingenious ways to exploit the restrictions creatively.
The creative minds behind Opera North’s first staged show since the shutters came down have not only been singularly inventive, they have also made a very lucid production of a work that is a challenge to stage. There is a wealth of subtext in Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s last collaboration, but the surface narrative is of two Annas – explicitly twins in this production – who spend seven years touring to seven cities in America in order to make the money to build their family a home in Louisiana, encountering each of the Seven Deadly Sins at their stops along the way.
Director and choreographer Gary Clarke and designer George Johnson-Leigh have built seven separate platforms in the playing area of the Quarry Theatre space at Leeds Playhouse for their Annas – singer Wallis Giunta and dancer Shelley Eva Haden – to journey between. Conductor James Holmes and the 15-piece band have a podium behind, which is often, but not always, also the home to the four men of the family chorus. Onstage signage helpfully indicates the year, location and vice of each episode, leaving the viewer/listener free to enjoy the music and performances.
And what a company Opera North has assembled for this return to live work, with names that will be familiar in Scotland to lovers of opera, and even more so of dance.
Clarke brought his own company to Stirling’s Macrobert with a powerful elegy for the mining industry, COAL, and was due to return on March 20 with its sequel, Wasteland, when the venue closed its doors. He also won a Herald Angel Award at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe for The Troth, his work with Akademi about Sikh soldiers in the First World War. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, Shelley Eva Haden was a member of choreographer Rosie Kay’s company for 5 Soldiers, her work based on the Army’s training regime, which came to Glasgow’s Tramway in 2016.
The singing Anna, Wallis Giunta, was Dodo in Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves for Scottish Opera at the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival. That work was an adaptation of a Lars von Trier film, and Clarke and Johnson-Leigh are clearly referencing another, the self-consciously stagey Dogville, which starred Nicole Kidman, here.
The gangsters in Seven Deadly Sins are, of course, the forces of capitalism and moral corruption in the West, and the world of Hollywood is ever-present in this production, not just in the Los Angeles section with its emblematic movie-camera. Haden’s cropped-headed appearance is bound to call to mind Rose McGowan, redoubtable instigator of the #MeToo campaign.
She is a compelling presence throughout, but so too is Giunta, who delivers the demanding vocal narrative in a deceptively casual fashion, despite some awkwardness in the scansion of Michael Feingold’s translation. The instrumental arrangement by HK Gruber and Christian Muthspiel is superbly played by the small orchestra and the family quartet – Stuart Laing, Nicholas Butterfield, Campbell Russell and Dean Robinson – are a precisely-pitched barbershop chorus.
If Brecht is perhaps more faithfully served in the staging than the libretto, that is probably fair enough, as Seven Deadly Sins was hardly a work into which he poured his soul. Holmes and the cast do Weill proud, though. This is a crucial work in his canon, the pivot between his early German success and America, and the score is vibrantly realised here.
Image: Seven Deadly Sins credit Tristam Kenton