Audience members were not even in their seats when it was clear that no ordinary evening was in store at the State Opera in Prague. A busker trio was onstage, banging out some American rockabilly and down-home country blues. They bled into the opening of Die sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins), with Anna I (Czech mezzo Dagmar Pecková) finally shooing them away so she could embark on Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s phantasmagoric tour of the US.

Dagmar Pecková (Anna I) and Lea Švejdová (Anna II)
© Zdeněk Sokol

Todsünden was paired with Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung as the first opera production in “Musica non grata”, a National Theater cycle dedicated to composers persecuted by totalitarian regimes. In that sense, it was a bit of a stretch – Weill, Brecht and Schoenberg all managed to flee Europe before the Nazi hammer came down on artists. But Erwartung had its world premiere at the State Opera (then the Neues Deutsches Theater) in 1924, and this was the premiere of Todsünden in Prague, where a Weill piece was last performed in 1930. So the double bill had both resonance and relevance, especially with a fresh, modern spin from director Barbora Horáková Joly.

Dagmar Pecková (Anna I) and dancers
© Zdeněk Sokol

In her treatment, the seven deadly sins took a back seat to the imagery, the choreography, the sets and the music. Inasmuch as Todsünden was conceived as a ballet chanté, no argument about the dancing, which was nonstop and imaginative, providing colorful visual realizations of Anna I’s narrative. As her sister Anna II, dancer Lea Švejdová did heroic work in increasingly demanding routines, tossed around like a rag doll at times, a disconcerting mix of elegance and abuse. The images were less effective, streaming simultaneously across four floating screens, even popping into 3-D once as a smoking barbecue grill descended from above. Boats, dogs, lit cigarettes, exploding rocket ships and, most memorably, dismembered doll soup – if they all had a point, it was hard to discern. Or maybe their incongruous absurdity was the point.

Amir Khan (Otec), Zdeněk Plech (Matka), Amir Khan (Father) and Zdeněk Plech (Mother)
© Zdeněk Sokol

The sole set was the “little house” in Louisiana, a vividly squalid place with a family to match. Anna’s father, mother and two brothers (sung by four males) kvetch about her weight, and how it might impact the money she sends them, while doing their business on a row of toilets. Brecht’s libretto is a piercing satire on capitalist America, but Joly takes that one step further with her juxtaposition of indolent men constantly complaining about a woman who, at least in this staging, appears to be whoring her way across the country to support them. It’s as much gender oppression as economic oppression. And the toll is clear at the end, when Anna I’s repeated line “Right, Anna?” draws no response from her sister, who is finally too exhausted to respond. Or dead.

Erwartung
© Zdeněk Sokol

The abused woman motif carried over neatly to Erwartung, where Petra Alvarez Šimková stumbled into a hyper-real forest setting that effectively evoked the atmosphere of a fever dream. The piece is often treated as an extended hallucination, but Šimková’s anguished vocals and discovery of the all-too-real body of her dead lover grounded it in reality. Unfortunately, the emotional impact was, again, diluted by projected images; in particular, a sequence showing Šimková dazed and staggering around in a bloody gown (called for in the original stage directions) seemed an unnecessary afterthought.

But credit Joly with a highly original and thematically effective ending. As the final notes sounded, two men in trenchcoats appeared and silently led Šimková away. Detectives arresting her as a murder suspect? Orderlies returning her to the mental hospital? Either way, she was no longer an abstract psychological portrait, but a female victim in a male-dominated world, wrongfully accused or driven mad by a faithless lover. It was a pivot point for the entire evening, realigning the women in both pieces as viewed through a contemporary lens.

Petra Alvarez Šimková (Woman)
© Zdeněk Sokol

Dagmar Pecková has had stronger vocal performances, but was letter-perfect in her portrayal of Anna I – in the parlance of the setting, one tough broad. Still, the real star of the evening was in the pit. Just 30, Jiří Rožeň is a major emerging talent who was born in Prague but has spent most of his career abroad, conducting orchestras throughout Europe and developing a particular expertise in modern opera. He drove Todsünden with expert pacing, smart support for the singers and dance rhythms that crackled with energy. Erwartung was even better. Working with an orchestra and instrumentation reduced by pandemic restrictions, Rožeň spun out a sophisticated atonal score, striking in its clarity and precision.

And let’s hear it for the uncredited busker trio, which nailed an authentic American sound. As a warm-up act for some deeply serious blues, you couldn’t ask for better.

****1