New settings for old vices

SEVEN DEADLY SINS   ***

Victorian Opera

Hamer Hall

November 6. 2015

In an ambitious exercise, the state company juxtaposed Weill/Brecht’s sung ballet – the last significant partnership between playwright and composer – with a freshly-composed Australian cabaret that visited the seven canonical major sins on the nation’s capital cities.  Julian Langdon wrote a prologue and epilogue for these modern-day Seven Deadly Sins as well as illustrating gluttonous Adelaide; Mark Viggiani took on Hobart’s envy and angry Perth; Brisbane’s association with sloth was allocated to Ian Whitney, who also had the unenviable task of populating the lustful landscape in Sydney; Jessica Wells tried to persuade us of Melbourne’s innate greed through the person of John Wren, but then had the night’s easiest run with a romp through prideful Canberra as personified by Howard, Rudd, Gillard and Abbott.

As with any challenging cabaret, the segments varied substantially in content, with plenty of pastiche from each writer.  And writers they were in both senses, providing the texts for their own music, albeit collaborating in workshops to develop the whole enterprise.  While each composer gave good musical service with well-regulated instrumentation and generally comfortable vocal writing, the librettos varied in effectiveness and relevance to the vices they were intending to depict.  Viggiani’s choose-a-wife contest for baritone Matthew Tng’s amiable Prince Alfredo held suggestions of the Princess Mary/Prince Frederik romance, but his condensation of Perth’s idiosyncratic ire to the Rinehart/Hancock family split failed to make many points about the vice itself, the slapstick depiction of all three characters in the triangle coming across as relatively heavy-handed.

Whitney’s two scenes also made a sharp contrast.  In Brisbane denizens Pete and Joh (what’s in a name?), he gained from the services of baritones Nathan Lay and Tng as two exhausted layabouts, while soprano Cristina Russo as a Milton-spouting Angel relished the score’s only lyrical vocal lines.  When it came to the bed-hopping character of Sydney’s self-obsessed chattering classes, the overlapping lines of all seven characters generated a clever verbal depiction of swinging relationships, Elizabeth Lewis’ anything-goes Helene a solidly crafted presence in a setting where most other vocal lines were confined to scraps.

Under Tahu Matheson, Orchestra Victoria escorted the singers through their tasks with equanimity, from  various Latin and Viennese take-offs to the circus-like superficiality of Jessica Wells’ mockery of Canberra’s political flotsam where costuming, mimicry and all-too-familiar verbal tropes took attention away from the musical underpinning.  Along the way through the night’s backside-numbing first part, the orchestra also took on Wells’ grim, sonorously weighty depiction of a depressed, working class Melbourne in thrall to John Wren’s betting stables and touts.

All of the singers involved were students from the Master of Music in Opera Performance course from  Melbourne University’s Conservatorium of Music; two of them – baritone Lay and impressive tenor Michael Petruccelli – also appeared in the night’s second part, the sung ballet that starred Weimar Republic cabaret expert Meow Meow in the lead role of Anna which, in more conventional productions, is split between a singer and a dancer.  As part of the male quartet representing Anna’s family, both young students gave firm service alongside tenor Carlos E. Barcenas and bass Jeremy Kleeman, the quartet aggressive, remorselessly stentorian on occasions in handling the chorale-type writing that punctuates Anna’s travels in search of wealth.

Matheson headed a larger instrumental body for Weill’s score which impressed for its consistent emotional content.  The creators left very little time for their audiences to resent being preached to, no matter how dexterously, about the evils associated with success in a capitalistic world but the scenes, though often discrete, moved into each other without theatrical or musical jerks. While the intent of the work is clearly didactic, its moral, rather than coming over coated in a sugary cocoon of comforting platitudes, remains grim and unavoidable, right up to the bitter if quiescent final bars.

Dominating the stage, Meow Meow gave an impressive depiction of Anna, making a splendid impact in the Boston scene where Anna 2 encounters lust in the form of an attractive if poor man, and her other half has to persuade her to do right by the money-expecting family and stay with her rich lover, harnessing lust to the greater good.  The singer handled this brief but telling segment with unaffected warmth, not actually milking the situation for its sentiment of regret but communicating simply the double standards in operation as Anna encounters yet another sin in a different civic setting.

Meow Meow (image: thefusionmag.com)

Both Deadly Sins were staged with surtitles, most helpful in the case of Brecht’s text which was sung in German.   Given the staging circumstances – a fairly small ribbon for action front-of-stage with the orchestra as backdrop, the family quartet singing from Hamer Hall’s rear wall – Cameron Menzies’ direction depended largely on Meow Meow’s histrionic talents.  By and large, the satire’s onward drive worked fairly well, despite too much emphasis for this observer on the cabaret fall-back of semi-sexual spasms and jerks.

Still, the production’s flaw stemmed from these straitened operating circumstances.  Despite the lead artist’s best endeavours, the work makes best sense if there are two Annas: one, the no-nonsense and hard-headed negotiating singer; the other, a more flighty, temperamentally unreliable dancer who actually does the hard work to get the truism-touting, corrupt family its home in Louisiana.   In this space, a dancer would have been forced to work under improbable restraints, but the lack of one – let alone a corps – lessened the construct’s dramatic impact.