Few European authors of the interwar years knew America firsthand. They were limited to what they saw on the silver screen or read. America became a trope. Starting with the Mahagonny Songspiel in his 1927 poetry collection, Hauspostille (Home Sermons, after Luther’s practice of preaching to family and friends gathered in his house) and through the two stage works he and Kurt Weill set in America, Bertolt Brecht perfected both his version and his critique of capitalism. Their tumultuous partnership would have ended in 1930 but for Weill’s 1933 commission for a ballet chanté resulting in one last work in the Mahagonny vein, The Seven Deadly Sins.

Eva-Maria Westbroek (Anna I) and Anna Drijver (Anna II)
© Sanne Peper

Spurred on by her greedy family, Anna is sent to earn money for a dream house. Success relies on her “pulling herself together”, reconciling her more impulsive side (Anna 2) with her practical, realistic self (Anna 1). In Freudian terms, the struggle becomes the classic one between the civilizing, moralizing Superego and the desires and impulses of the Id. As Anna 1 observes, they are really “one heart with one savings account”. Yet Anna 2 resists Anna 1’s effort to commodify them as they zig-zag across the continent to seven different cities each representing one of the deadly sins. In Brecht’s chimerical America, there is no rationale for associating a particular sin with a particular city, the clearest indication being the setting of Lust in Boston.

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Anna 1 identifies each sin with a twist, calling her “sister” out for following her desires instead of bending to those of others. Pride, for example is “for those who can afford it”. Anna 2 sins because her pride leads her to initially resist the self-abasement necessary to earn money dancing in a lewd Memphis cabaret. As city follows city, Anna 1 convinces her double to overcome the sins of her principles to do whatever is necessary, even to the point of driving her many lovers to suicide in Greed.

Anna Drijver (Anna II)
© Sanne Peper

Director Ola Mafaalani has created an absorbing and completely cinematic version of the opera for the Opera Forward Festival. A combination of stationary and handheld cameras along with handheld lights provides a pictorial variety of perspectives and expressionistic framing as the action flows smoothly throughout the space, mostly snaking through and around the orchestra at floor level. A raised platform backed by a paper-covered panel is mainly the province of the painter covering it in black designs, rarely hosting the action. The male quartet representing the family sings from the balcony during Sloth.

The Annas are shot most frequently in close-up with Anna 2 blurred in the foreground as Anna 1 sings behind her. Anna 2 finally comes into focus during the close-ups of the final sin, Envy, and the Epilogue. Some of the action remains inadequately established by the camera. The painter’s efforts are mostly ignored after the opening. We never really see what he’s painting, nor do we ever completely understand what Anna 2 is doing in Anger. The focus is on Anna 1 in a striking showgirl costume. Anna 2 is first revealed in a long-shot wearing a striped barrel over her head and a difficult-to-discern minimal costume. She next appears in close-up removing the barrel with her complete outfit only briefly visible. The painter finally asserts himself, approaching the camera and brushing the concluding blackout on the lens.

Eva-Maria Westbroek (Anna I) and Anna Drijver (Anna II)
© Sanne Peper

Anna 1 afforded Eva-Maria Westbroek the opportunity to display her voice’s mezzo warmth, an alluring contrast to her character’s cool detachment. Anna Drijver maintained the Louise Brooks helmet hair and Weimar make-up of both sisters’ first appearance through much of the action. Choreographed movement was less a factor in bringing her character to life than the eyes and expressions caught by the camera. Her gradual disintegration was poignant; the final reveal of her real face and hair, the naked acknowledgement of the destruction necessary to build the dream house. The male quartet representing the family (the bass in drag as the mother) mastered all the genres Weill parodies from the chorale praying their daughter would become sufficiently corrupt to succeed to the barbershop harmonies of Gluttony and the father’s bravura aria in Greed.

Eva-Maria Westbroek (Anna I) and Anna Drijver (Anna II)
© Sanne Peper

Weill’s orchestration is more classical, the cabaret instruments of piano, banjo and guitar much less prominent in this larger ensemble. Erik Nielsen and the Rotterdam Philharmonic employed color and accent to convey the irony of Weill’s chameleon score with its variety of dance rhythms. Envy’s sardonic march did double duty, marking both Anna 1’s victory and Anna 2’s funeral.

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, winner of the 2020 Booker Prize, recited a poem written specifically for this production as a curtain raiser.


This performance was reviewed from the Dutch National Opera video livestream

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