The Seven Deadly Sins/ Mahagonny Songspiel review – wit and style over sleaze

Fiona Maddocks
·1-min read

Thanks to the mysteries of numerology, there are only seven deadly sins. I’ve always thought that a mercy when encountering Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins (1933), which toils through each one of them, from sloth to envy, each sin associated with an American city in Bertolt Brecht’s scenario. Imagine if there were more. Self-styled as a ballet chanté, or sung ballet, it’s part-sung, part-danced, and draws on popular song and dance styles of the 20s.

To cheer us out of lockdown, promising depictions of sexual assault, disordered eating, substance abuse and suicide, the Royal Opera presented it with Weill-Brecht’s short Mahagonny Songspiel (1927), full of great numbers, such as the Alabama Song, but also a display of life at its most glum and depraved. All credit to the British director and Jette Parker Young Artist Isabelle Kettle, to the entire JPYA cast and members of the ROH orchestra, conducted by Michael Papadopoulos, for making these hitherto intractable works so fruitful. Wit and insight took precedence over easy, wearisome sleaze, with stylish visual solutions from the designer Lizzie Clachan (lighting James Farncombe).

The binding force was the talented mezzo-soprano Stephanie Wake-Edwards, who showed artistic courage and verve both in The Seven Deadly Sins and in Mahagonny. As Anna I, measuring her tawdry life in a dressing-room mirror, handheld cameras charting her every move, she had the bonus of the Filipino dancer Jonadette Carpio as her alter ego, Anna II. In Mahagonny, the expressive Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Kseniia Nikolaieva as Bessie was a voluptuous foil to Wake-Edwards’s Jessie. The pair, makeup awry, paraded in their grubby, ruffled-silk gowns, one peach coloured, the other pistachio, like exotic birds thrashed by humanity’s storm.