Monday, May 28, 2007

Works that Defy Staging

I just read Rupert Christiansen agonizing in the Telegraph over the problems with staging The Seven Deadly Sins:

It sounds like the recipe for a hit. A half-hour cantata, combining elements of opera and ballet, which reflects on the ironies of vice in a cynical, sexy, witty yet touching parable set to brilliant and memorable music. How could it fail?

But I've now seen eight theatrical versions of Brecht and Weill's Seven Deadly Sins - most recently, the mess choreographed last month by Will Tuckett at the Royal Opera House - and not one has convinced me.

He reminded me that I have only seen one theatrical version, which, ironically, surprised me at how effective it was. The irony had to do with the production being by the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1985. I was a big "BAM" supporter at the time, which meant that I went to every Bausch production they offered that fall; and, with the exception of the Weill evening, they were all interminably self-indulgent. I think that the constraint of working within the half-hour limitation of Seven Deadly Sins did her some good; and this continued to be the case after the intermission with her choreographic interpretation of Weill's Kleine Dreigroschenmusik, which was definitely the only indication of joy (even if a bit perverse) that her dancers ever exhibited. It was also the only evening with "live" music, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Brooklyn Philharmonic; so Thomas may have had something to do with giving the performances more pace than the other productions had.

Several years ago he conducted Seven Deadly Sins with the San Francisco Symphony and Uta Lemper. As I recall, this was an unstaged performance with surtitles. Lemper had preceded the intermission with a pale shadow of a cabaret act that was pretty lifeless and certainly out of place in the enormity of Davies Hall. However, the size of the space was no obstacle when MTT took over the podium. Even with the spare resources of the Weill score, he made the performance "work" (and made Lemper far more interesting in the process).

There are, of course, "great classics" that defy staging. Stravinsky seems to have a monopoly on them. There will probably always be a controversy over whether or not there is a "right" way to stage "Le Sacre du Printemps;" but even "Firebird" has a reputation for being a clunker. Then, of course, there is "L'Histoire du Soldat," a pioneering piece of back-of-the-truck theatre that just never seems to "make it" when staged.

I have no idea why Bausch was able to succeed with Weill where so many others have failed. I have a better idea as to why her Weill effort should have succeeded when all of her other work was so disastrous, which is that she really needed someone to tell her when to stop. Perhaps Christiansen's frustrations can be traced back to productions that never figured out how to start!

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