This evening was about firsts – the first time that the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra played two 20th-century compositions, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Suite from The Nose and Kurt Weill’s ballet chantéThe Seven Deadly Sins, and the Dutch première of Karim al-Zand’s Lamentation on the Disasters of War from 2006. In all three works the orchestra sounded at its handsomest under conductor Cristian Măcelaru. Weill’s cynical parable got the full, symphonic treatment; it is hard to imagine his waltzes and funeral marches played more lustrously. Singer-songwriter Wende was transfixing in the leading role, written for Weill’s wife, the legendary Lotte Lenya.

Cristian Măcelaru © Adriane White
Cristian Măcelaru
© Adriane White

There were more young faces than usual in the audience, drawn by the after-concert event organized by the Concertgebouw’s young patrons association. The evening was to end in a “mini classical music rave”, but the fun kicked off at intermission, when actors dressed as deadly sins accosted the public in the crush bars. Sloth lay down in a corridor in her apricot dressing gown, complaining of exhaustion. Lust, wearing bunny ears, made love to the neo-classical columns.

But the evening started bleakly. Indeed it wasn’t obvious how Al-Zand’s Lamentation, an elegy for string orchestra, fitted in with the rest of the programme. There is no hint of parody in the composition inspired by Goya’s series of prints The Disasters of War (1810-1820) and dedicated to the composer’s cousin, killed in Iraq in 2005. It starts with sustained chords, over a simple double bass pizzicato, that swell with urgency, then subside. The piece has a late Romantic sweep to it, but does not work towards a definitive climax. In imitation of a relentless cycle of conflict, it flares up and recedes for a whole ten minutes. It was at its most haunting when distinct instrument voices emerged, such as a mournful cello melody or the sharp keening in the violins.

The Nose is an absurdist opera with a mind-boggling cast of 82. Based on a story by Gogol, its plot centres around a self-important bureaucrat whose nose wanders off and starts leading a life of its own, causing no end of grief. The suite extracts seven highlights from the opera. Măcelaru conducted it with dynamic savvy. In the Overture the quick figures relayed from one orchestra section to the other danced as delicately as fireflies. The final section, the hectic Galop, gathered momentum smoothly but purposefully. All the while the RCO produced the most spellbinding sounds. I don’t know how brass can belch beautifully, but that’s what it did. The percussion-only Act 1 intermezzo was the spectacular showpiece it deserves to be. The vocal excerpts did not, however, equal the orchestra. Baritone Martin Winkler was curiously subdued in Kovalyov’s monologue. You’d expect a man who has misplaced his nose to be more perturbed. As his valet, tenor Jan-Willem Schaafsma’s top notes were not penetrant enough to bring off the ludicrously overwrought Ivan’s Song.

Schaafsma fared much better as Father in Weill’s Die sieben Todsünden. Together with bass Marc Pantus (Mother) and their sons, tenor Erik Slik and baritone Mattijs van de Woerd, he formed the Louisiana quartet that sends daughter Anna away to earn enough money for a new family home. While they sing caricature chorales, Anna moves from one big city to another selling her talents and relinquishing her ideals in the process. In one prologue, seven sin-twinned episodes and an epilogue, she learns that only the rich can afford pride, that the public prefers titillation to art, that morality is relative, and that love is a tradable commodity.

Bertolt Brecht’s text has hardly aged. In Gluttony Anna must keep her weight down. “Every single day they weigh her. Gaining half an ounce means trouble.” This is when the family quartet blended into its finest moment, singing a cappella about all the chicken and schnitzel she’d be able to tuck away once she returns home. Anna was created for two performers, a singer and a dancer, respectively her rational and her instinctual self. The originally announced dancer never made it into the final performance. Wende was both Anna I and II, projected live on a screen in black-and-white. Pre-recorded shots interrupted the live video to show Anna II’s frustration and disappointment at the accumulation of compromises. Feline Wende, with her slightly smoky lower register and cutting top, was forceful enough to encompass the two Annas. A miscalculation on the mise en espace director’s part had her traversing the hall at one point, returning onstage slightly out of breath. Even then she was riveting, every word wrenched from the bottom of her being, every cadence perfectly judged. Măcelaru and the RCO surrounded her with bittersweet dances (Pride) and feverish thriller music (Greed). It was a special intersection of artistic disciplines.