TWO weeks before this Gary Clarke production of Weill’s ballet chanté was due to go into rehearsal, the second Lockdown was announced, making the planned live performance – in a double bill with Acis And Galatea– an impossibility.
So, Acis was quickly dropped and a new physically distanced livestream became the order of the day. Without the normal lead-times, this was a tall order. Clarke rapidly conceived Anna (Anna I, the singer and Anna II, the dancer) and her family as German immigrants fleeing Hitler and thus displaced from the start.
George Johnson-Leigh’s set, imagined as an abandoned film studio, assigned a separate dais or “box” for each sin, with the family displaced into the no-man’s land between the boxes every time the two Annas changed city.
A large Hollywood sign at the back of the set thus pointed the contrast between that promised land, still booming in the 1930s, and the privations of the Depression – and, of course, current stringencies.
The contrast between the two Annas was not quite as strong as it might have been, partly because their roles were filled by two equally fetching performers. Canadian mezzo Wallis Giunta’s Anna I, supposedly the thinker and practical half of her personality, seemed to be enjoying, almost revelling, in the travelogue.
Whereas a deeper pain was etched into the features of dancer Shelley Eva Haden’s Anna II, as she learnt to moderate her wilfulness to suit the paying customers on their tour.
But the paradox at the heart of this morality tale, about what you need to do to accumulate wealth, could not have been clearer: “Conquer your weaker self to conquer the world”, in Michael Feingold’s translation, sung under a shower of dollar bills. Only the temptations themselves might have been writ larger, although that would be hard to envisage in present conditions.
Giunta was on top form, forthright, even bossy, when need be but able to mine a deep nostalgia in the epilogue. She is an actress of many hues and, when her tone is as focused as this, irresistible.
Haden was no less versatile and utterly tireless. To Clarke’s choreography, she ranged the whole spectrum of dance, from the extravagance of Busby Berkeley (in a splendid, giant-sized feather headdress) in Anger, to Pavlova’s tutu-clad Dying Swan immediately afterwards in Gluttony.
She reached a manic peak parodying punk anarchist dancer Valeska Gert. Her brief spoken interjections were pleasingly clear.
The family quartet – tenors Nicholas Butterfield and Stuart Laing, baritone Dean Robinson and bass Campbell Russell – carried off their solo work as well as they blended, notably in the Sloth motet and the prayerful strictures of Lust. The ending was suitably ambivalent.
James Holmes, editor of the critical edition of Weill’s orchestral works and former Head of Music at this company, could not have been a better choice as conductor. The differentiation in styles was masterly and the playing, by 15 instruments in a reduced version by H K Gruber and Christian Muthspiel, had a succulent clarity.
It was just a pity that the low camera angles precluded much sight of the orchestra, although it was on stage. This is a minor reservation in the face of such an admirable achievement against near-impossible odds.
Finally, my special thanks to two patient members of the press office, Elizabeth Simmonds and Rowland Thomas, for bailing me out of a technological nightmare. Bring back live performance …
Review by Martin Dreyer