Bertolt Brecht, who supplied the words for The Seven Deadly Sins at a time when anti-Nazi writers and composers were escaping to America, was not a religious evangelist, his definition of sin being most of what he considered to be necessary to make it in a predatory capitalist system. His relationship with Kurt Weill was strained in 1933 partly by his increasingly hardline attitudes and partly by his severely functional view of the use of music onstage, when the two came together to create this dark satire, described as a ballet chanté.

Shelley Eva Haden (Anna II) and Wallis Giunta (Anna I)
© Tristram Kenton

Almost miraculously, the result was a triumph, interpreted on this occasion with enormous verve by Opera North. Online for two days, it was live-streamed from a wide stage in Leeds Playhouse, a socially-distanced performance, the presence of a live audience scuppered by lockdown. The players were properly distanced for the camera too, from the orchestra in the shadows to the two principals, Anna I and Anna II. In fact the need to keep apart sparked plenty of creativity: the set (George Johnson-Leigh) is sparse, involving seven fixed oblong stages equipped with minimal props, for example a small table with a lamp signifying a cabaret show. Other props are also simple, including a park bench and a few wooden chairs. Mike Lock's lighting scheme becomes critical, and is efficiently implemented.

Wallis Giunta (Anna I)
© Tristram Kenton

In their quest to accumulate dollars, the two Annas travel from location to location with their suitcases, discovering that, above all, “sin is profitable”. They have been sent off by a family back in Louisiana which believes, in the Sloth section, that “every sinner starts by being lazy”. The family, played by four men, was a harsh background presence for the pair throughout. Mezzo Wallis Giunta, last seen with Opera North in 2017 in Trouble in Tahiti, was an enthralling Anna I, with crystalline diction and pure, full-ranging voice, giving her a warm and almost angelic quality entirely fitting for the twin (or half of the personality) who acts as the voice of conscience. Her movements were constrained, contrasting with those of Anna II (Shelley Eva Haden), who danced Gary Clarke's choreography with considerable ferocity. As a young woman seduced by a very unattractive version of the American dream, she was a rather punky cabaret dancer with head-plumes, an exploited bit-part contributor to the sleazier part of the Hollywood of Charlie Chaplin and Busby Berkeley, a frantic dieter instructed to stay slim and the cause of young men’s suicides. One of her particularly breathtaking sequences took place entirely on the park bench.

Nicholas Butterfield (Brother)
© Tristram Kenton

The work was presented in HK Gruber and Christian Muthspiel's new 35-minute arrangement, ahead its scheduled UK premiere by the Royal Opera in spring 2021. The translation, in a modern vernacular version by Michael Feingold, brings out 21st-century resonances ten to the dozen, for example “you must tolerate abuses or you won’t be tolerated”, advice which is followed to ensure that Anna can return to buy a house back home in Louisiana. The superb Opera North orchestra, conducted by James Holmes, does perfect justice to the pulsing rhythms of Weill’s music. 

This performance was reviewed from the Opera North video stream