For most of his career, Bertolt Brecht was an angry man: angry at politics, angry at the ocean of squalor, inhumanity and hypocrisy that seemed to surround him. In Kurt Weill, he found a composer able to concentrate that anger with music, no more so than in The Seven Deadly Sins, the last stage work that the pair wrote together. In Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya, Brecht found a singing actor who could channel the heights of their sardonic expression. In last night’s performance at La Scala, Lenya’s mantle was taken on by Kate Lindsey, to devastating effect.

Kate Lindsey (Anna I)
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Brecht’s chosen weapon is irony. Our heroine, Anna, travels to a series of American cities from which she is expected to send money home to her family (a Greek chorus-like quartet of male singers) for them to build a home in Louisiana. In each city, the family decries the dreadfulness of a sin – because it is inhibiting Anna from prostituting herself to earn more money for the building fund. The resonance to present times – with inequality and sexual violence in public consciousness – could hardly be stronger.

Brecht and Weill turned a financial constraint (the work’s commission came from the husband of a ballerina) into a felicitous outcome. Anna’s personality is split into two: a singer (Anna I, sung by Lindsey) and a dancer (Anna II, acted but not danced in this production by Lauren Michelle). Anna II is the pretty one who earns the money; Anna I is the conduit for the family’s faux moralising.

Seven Deadly Sins
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Lindsey’s performance is extraordinary on every level. Her timbre is beautifully rich and smooth, with plenty of power in reserve. Her German diction is clearer than any opera performance I can remember. And she calibrates the intensity required perfectly to the progress of the drama. This form of satire works only if the protagonist displays no hint of self-awareness, that their own words are painting them as a hypocrite in brash, vivid colours. Lindsey’s words drip with irony (“Pride is for rich people, do what they want you to do, not what you wished they wanted”) and she is hideously watchable as she drives her alter ego Anna II into untold depths of degradation. As Anna II, Lauren Michelle doesn't have much to say other than to acquiesce meekly, but her control of body language plays a full part in the horror we’re watching.

Weill’s music has its own multiple dimensions of irony, blending beautiful melody with discordant undertones, throwing in pastiches of religious chorales, constantly seeking to seduce the listener while also disturbing them, playing tricks like accompanying the sin of sloth with frenetic music that might have come out of the Keystone Cops. Riccardo Chailly and the La Scala orchestra play it energetically while revealing the harmonies and rhythms in the score in great detail.

Lauren Michelle (Anna II) and Kate Lindsey (Anna I)
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Irina Brook’s production condenses the stage into a small living area with sparse, cheap-looking furniture and a lot of hard liquor. It places the family firmly as trailer trash, aided by projected black-and-white video of an actual trailer which evokes 1930s silent cinema. It’s simple enough, but there are plenty of effective devices, like the change in Anna II’s costume from tutu (as she hopes to become a ballerina) to feather boa (as she becomes a dancer of quite a different sort). All this – plus some great singing from the family quartet – made this performance into a visceral experience, a real triumph.

But there’s a problem: at 40 minutes, The Seven Deadly Sins is generally considered too short for a whole concert, so promoters feel the need to add something else to fill out the programme, which is a thankless task. In this La Scala broadcast, as it often is, that place was taken by the 1927 Mahagonny-Songspiel, a set of six numbers which form a sort of artist’s cartoon for the later “epic opera” The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

Kate Lindsey (Anna I) and Lauren Michelle (Anna II)
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

It’s not that anyone’s performance qualities were diminished in this second item of the diptych, it’s just that the work doesn’t hang together or display the same artistic coherence of either the Deadly Sins or, indeed, the full Mahagonny opera. Much of the music over-eggs the pudding: much is frantic and doesn’t really put across a sense of progression. Still, there’s one of Weill’s greatest hits, the Alabama Song, which was dispatched with panache by Lindsey and Michelle, and later relayed in modern dance-floor format (complete with breakdance moves) to give us something to cheer us up at the end of the evening. It’s going to take a lot to get me used to the sight of a masked conductor walking slowly away from orchestra at the end of the show in near-darkness and perfect silence, and the upbeat music and video out-takes provided much-needed lightening up.

This performance was reviewed from the Teatro alla Scala video stream