It might not be opera as we would like to experience it, but nevertheless it was a great way to spend 40 minutes on an otherwise dull Saturday evening in lockdown.
Regular readers will know that I have been less than impressed by the on-line versions of operas which have been filmed from the stage productions. Tonight, however, the balance has been almost redressed with the live streaming of Seven Deadly Sins by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.
My general beef is that there are very few examples of art forms which are created in one medium and have successfully been transferred to another. The point of theatre is that it is a one-off performance which, although it might run forever, like The Mousetrap, every night is a unique experience. Opera and theatre are set on stages which allow the viewer to look at the parts which interest them rather than the bits that the director of photography wants you to see. That is what cinema and tv are for.
Tonight I watched the live stream and was pleased to see that it had ben staged on what looked to be a Hollywood set with each scene performed in a different numbered section to indicate the moving from one city (and sin) to the next. I doubt that the transformation was a huge deviation from the way it would have been staged for a live audience at Leeds Playhouse but it did lend itself a little more to the filming as there were ‘dead’ parts of the stage.
I only had a couple of gripes about the streaming so I will get those out of the way first. There was a rogue camera monitor which appeared a couple of times at the bottom of the screen where the subtitles were displayed, but this was a minor point. The ones which affected my enjoyment and appreciation of the piece were that the sin, the city, and the year were displayed on signs either held by actors when the scene shifted, or on the front of a lectern to the rear right of the stage. At the beginning it was not easy to read the latter one as you could only see the top of the number so it was not clear whether it was 1932 or 1933. In the Los Angeles scene it was not shown at all so we had to assume that it was 1935. Again, as we were at the behest of the cameraman and director, the Baltimore scene was affected by the headlines of the newspapers being read by the family members telling the story of why the girls were making news, which were not all shown.
The upside of streaming is that I could watch the live performance and make my notes, and then watch it again the morning after to verify them and write my article. It also gave me the added luxury of being able to sit back and enjoy it the second time around rather than analyse the production as is the case when you only get one shot. It was also a change to write my notes with the light on rather than do it in the dark of a theatre and try to decipher the mess the following day. You even get a link to an on-line programme, which saves a couple of quid!
So, to the opera itself. A the title suggests it concerns the seven deadly sins comprising; sloth, pride, anger, gluttony, lust, greed and envy. That is a full house on my Sin Bingo card! The way in which they are illustrated is by telling the story of a girl – or is it two? – who visit(s) seven cities over a period of seven years in order to to raise money to build a family home on the banks of the Mississippi in Louisiana. The rest of the family; father, mother and two brothers, stay at home and wait for the money to roll in. A sin in itself I would have thought.
It is never clear as to whether there is one girl with an alter ego or two twins, even the introduction to the piece is deliberately ambiguous. They are both called Anna and I doubt that even an American, with the exception of the ex-heavyweight world champion boxer and electric grill producer, George Foreman, who named all of his five sons George Edward, would give their siblings the same name. Even so, because they are played by separate actresses I will write as though they are twins.
Anna I is the sensible one, whereas Anna II is an idealist and the battle throughout is between the temptation by Anna II to commit the sins and Anna I to prevent her from doing so, as her actions are jeopardising their ability to raise the money needed for the house. The action takes place between 1932 and 1939 and involves visits to one unnamed city and then on to Memphis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore and San Francisco. A cursory look at a map of the USA will show that this is not the best planned itinerary. Eventually they return home to their new home with the job done.
Seven Deadly Sins is described as a ‘sung ballet’ with Anna I, played by Wallis Giunta, being the singer and Shelley Eva Haden, Anna II, the dancer. Both were stupendous. The singing was crystal clear and note perfect making the subtitles unnecessary, and the dancing flawless. I am no expert on dancing, except for the disco variety, but the range of movement and expression was amazing. In the forty minutes of the production I don’t think that Ms Haden stopped for more than a couple of minutes. Even the opening sin of sloth had her throwing herself about on a park bench like a woman possessed. If that was sloth goodness knows what she does on an active day. The final shot of the piece showed her shoulders covered in perspiration. Ms Giunta was also fully employed throughout except for the time that the other family members occupied the stage to set the scene or move the story along.
Speaking of the family, they were each identified by a sign hanging round their neck describing who they were; there was Father, sung by Campbell Russell and two Brothers, Stuart Laing and Nicholas Butterfield. The only one who was signless was Mother, who was, like the rest, played by a man, Dean Robinson – with a beard! Once again the singing could not be faulted and was easily understood.
There was one thing about the opera which kept grating, however, and that was the mispronunciation of the word ‘Louisiana’. The piece was sung with an American accent and included words such as ‘ain’t’ to give it authenticity, but the state in question was pronounced in the English way – Leweezyanna, rather than the American way – Lewzyanna. I would have been more than happy to ignore this but the extra syllable meant that every line in which it was included didn’t scan properly but would have done without it.
The orchestra was at the back of the stage rather than in a pit and so added to the experience. It was conducted by James Holmes.
The designer was George Johnson-Leigh who added a few humorous touches to the piece, one of which was a clapper board propped against a chair on which was chalked ‘Sins – Take 7’. The director was Gary Clarke who provided an introduction to the stream.
Apart from the few gripes I found Seven Deadly Sins to be a great way to spend a Saturday evening and I am already looking forward to Fidelio on 12th December.
Seven Deadly Sins is streaming until 6.00pm Monday, 23rd November so to get a ticket, a tenner well spent, please go to;
To close, I could not help but chuckle at the thought of people watching opera on their mobile phones rather than distracting others from a live opera by looking at their devices during the performance.
Feature photograph by Tristram Kenton. Shelley Eva Haden and Wallis Giunta as Anna II and Anna I