Thursday, May 19, 2011
Patti LuPone in The Seven Deadly Sins at the New York City Ballet
By Mary Sheeran
Near the end of the New York City Ballet’s new production of The Seven Deadly Sins, Anna I stands on a darkened stage preaching virtue to us all, while behind her rises her gigantic shadow the height of the stage. It’s a wonderful moment, demonstrating in toto the monstrous nature of the character created by Patti LuPone in an unforgettable performance. Nothing hinders or daunts this crisp, business-suited woman nor the woman who portrays her – not a vast stage that does not (despite an expensive do-over) welcome even microphoned voices very well, not the vastness of the audience. Nothing can make this woman seem small (indeed, she grows more threatening with each scene), and at the end, the stage admits it, showing us her real force, a titan firm in her conviction that “those who were good go to bliss unalloyed. Those who were bad are rejected forever.” Anna I has successfully vanquished that part of herself (or her sister, Anna II, you decide), that is her soul, which she victimized beneath the moralistic lash, all a cover-up for a determined grasp for power and wealth.
Not that such a thing could happen in real life.
I had never seen this 1933 Bertolt Brecht classic nor heard the Kurt Weill music, either, although I certainly had read about it, how it had been produced, directed, and choreographed by George Balanchine at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris and how it had presented two Annas (or one Anna performed by two artists, one a singer and one a dancer): Anna I, sung by Lotte Lenya and Anna II, danced by Tilly Losch. In the 1950s, Lenya (then Weill’s widow) revived the production and again sang Anna I, with the music transposed down a fourth. A few decades later, Balanchine discussed mounting it again for the New York City Ballet with Bette Midler singing the role of Anna I and Karin von Aroldingen dancing the role of Anna II. This production, unfortunately, was never realized. Even more decades had to pass before a singer with the power to perform Anna I could step onto the New York City Ballet stage. That singer, of course, is Patti LuPone.
Now it is the New York City Ballet’s major event of its spring season, and the work was probably new to most of us. It took me a little time to grasp what was going on. Reading the libretto doesn’t necessarily help: you need to watch the ironic action that, for this production was created by a sly Lynn Taylor-Corbett. The story concerns two sisters (or two aspects of the same person), Anna I and Anna II, who leave their one-room shack in Louisiana to find fame and fortune in American cities, each of which becomes a place of “Sin.” Their goal? Make their fortune and get back home to Louisiana.
The first clue I had that the libretto was not to be taken literally came with the first sin, “Sloth.” For as Anna II is called “Lazybones,” by Anna I and “The Family” (a scary and hilarious group led by the scary and hilarious Raymond Jarmillo McLeod as Mother), Anna II (Wendy Whelan) is engaged in working as hard as Cinderella did before the ball. So why are Anna I (LuPone) and the Family, which also profits from Anna II’s work), nagging at her? We realize that the preaching on the sins is designed encourage Anna II to work herself to the bone while Anna I and the Family profit. The story is so simply told (and danced) that you could, if you didn’t watch AND listen, miss the point.
Speaking of listening, it might have been wise to use subtitles in this production, given that the former New York State Theater is not an intimate house. New York City Opera uses subtitles with operas in English, just so you don’t have to strain too much to make out the words. LuPone seemed sensitive to this handicap, and it served her character well to dominate everything in her path, including language, but it was a tough battle for her and us. It definitely helped to read the libretto, but even that did not ease the audience’s negotiation of what could be murky articulation no matter how hard the performers worked.
Brecht’s libretto (translated by WH Auden) parades through a Biblical seven-year feast of sloth, pride, anger, gluttony, lust, greed, and envy in seven American cities (none of them New York!). The dancing accompanying the words underscored but did not overpower the words. The corps of men dancing as part of the commentaries lacked energy, but that only served to make LuPone appear more powerful, modest as she was in her no-nonsense suit. For her part, Whelan was wonderful. Usually a powerful force on stage, she was quite pathetic in the wake of Anna I, and when the two Annas stood together, they evoked a palpable oneness.
At the close of the opera, when LuPone strides triumphantly into the new mansion she has provided the Family and Whelan is destroyed, the irony thoroughly scorches. It would have been more devastating in a smaller theater.
The Seven Deadly Sins wasn’t the only piece on a glutton-worthy program. We started with Balanchine’s and Bach’s marvelous collaboration in Concerto Barocco (1941) with Teresa Reichlin and Sara Mearns clarifying the two violins with a perky energy (Reichlin) and luxuriant phrasing (Mearns). Justin Peck understated his “is he there or isn’t he” partnering with exemplary delicacy. We also enjoyed the exuberant dancing of consistently excellent Daniel Ulbricht and Tiler Peck in Balanchine’s Tarentella (1964).
This was a long program. It concluded with Balanchine’s 1977 delight, Vienna Waltzes, a work I can hardly be objective about because it lured me (and I’m sure others) into the world of ballet. Vienna Waltzes never disappoints. One needn’t think. Just follow the piling of distinctive, inventive waltz phrases upon waltz phrases as the dancers sweep by, observe the courtliness, and feel the sexual tension (although Jenifer Ringer and Ask La Cour lacked the necessary heat for the Gold und Silber Walzer. He was way too innocent and lanky; it spun the story in an unhappy direction. Not much happens here; the heat’s gotta be there).
For three of the ballet’s five sections, we’ve been seeing a mirror through the Vienna woods (with its strange population of gorgeous waltzers, wood sprites, and clowns), and when the stage transforms into a grand ballroom for the finale, we realize we have been looking into our future. The final Rosenkavalier section with its lush Richard Strauss score veers from delicacy to the hysteria of a society on the brink. In the delicate opening, Balanchine brings back the “is he there or isn’t he” duet once again (male as muse and dream partner), poetic and startling even after all these years, and a welcome contrast before the other dancers sweep by. When the chandeliers blaze and the women swirl in white satin, you almost have to shield your eyes from the brilliance.
All in all, Friday’s program was filled with riches and the complexity of Balanchine’s world: a cynical view colliding with a romantic view, a couple of teases, a coolly classical delight. Here is a choreographer who was a musician, lived in music, and showed it to us, the ballet master who knew how to fill a stage with elegance, who could toss off the jokes in Tarentella with but two dancers filling the same stage, and the complex musicality and story of The Seven Deadly Sins, which he once choreographed and wanted to again, a desire the company honored with its production that brought the magnificent Patti LuPone to the NYCB stage.
Concerto Barocco: Music by Johann Sebastian Bach (Double Violin Concerto in D minor); Choreography by George Balanchine. Premiere: June 27, 1941, American Ballet Caravan, Rio de Janeiro. NYCB Premiere: October 11, 1948, City Center of Music and Drama, New York. Tarantella: Music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk Reconstructed and Orchestrated by Hershy Kay; Choreography by George Balanchine; Costumes by Karinska; Premiere: January 7, 1964, City Center of Music and Drama, New York. Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sins (Ballet chanté in nine scenes): Music by Kurt Weill; Text by Bertolt Brecht; English translation by WH Auden and Chester Kallman; Arrangement for low voice by Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg; Choreography and Direction by Lynne Taylor-Corbett; Costumes by Judanna Lynn; Set Design by Beawulf Boritt; Guest conductor: Paul Gemignani. Premiere: May 11, 2011, NYCB. Vienna Waltzes: Music by Johann Strauss II, Franz Lehár, and Richard Strauss. Choreography by George Balanchine; Scenery by Rouben Ter-Arutunian; Costumes by Karinska; Premiere: June 23, 1977, New York State Theater.
New York City Ballet’s season at Lincoln Center continues through June 12. For information and tickets, visit www.nycballet.com.
Mary Sheeran is a singer and writer whose recent novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, takes place during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet (www.questofthesleepingprincess.com). Her CD recording, Through the Years, is available on CD Baby.
Patti LuPone and Wendy Whelan in The Seven Deadly Sins (Paul Kolnick)