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Arts Fest: The Lindbergh Flight, Seven Deadly Sins

Arts Festival Review: The Lindbergh Flight & The Seven Deadly Sins

Review by Lyndon Hood

The Lindbergh Flight/The Flight Over The Ocean & The Seven Deadly Sins
By Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht
Director Fançois Girard
23, 25 & 26 Feb, 8pm
The Saint James Theatre
See festival website for full details and bookings
In German with English surtitles

The programme consists of two pieces, both composed by Kurt Weill from texts by Bertholt Brecht, presented in spectacular fashion and, in the case of The Seven Deadly Sins, with real emotional impact.

Weill also more famously composed music for Brecht's musical plays – the raucous stuff of European music hall. Both these pieces have sequences in that style – albiet with the NZSO as the band. But, particularly in The Lindberg Flight where the 15 sections are punctuated by narration, there is much musical variation. Overall the orchestration was not unlike the lightly jazz-influenced American movie soundtracks or musicals of the thirties. This was combined with a more old-school vocal score, with powerful choric harmonies that might surprise someone more familiar with Weill's musicals. Such as me.

The Lindbergh Flight/The Flight Across The Ocean, is of course based on Charles Lindbergh's crossing of the Atlantic. Coming from Bertolt Brecht, a man famous for using political theatre for socialist ends, the celebration of an individual's achievement in cantata form seems an odd choice. More so because after the initial composition Lindbergh became subject to accusations that he supported the Nazi regime and Brecht attempted to remove his name from the title – giving rise to the two-part name used here. One imagines that Lindbergh was, for Brecht, a kind of anti–Ed-Hillary whose personal achievment was overwheelmed by his moral failure. But, while these issues are alluded to in a spoken prologue created for this production from Brecht's writings, the core of the piece remains a musical description of Linbergh's journey and its social context.

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The whole piece, and each of the 15 sections, are introduced by a Narrator in perfect old-style American-radio-announcer English (media commentary and the reactions on both sides of the ocean are chronicled alongside Lindbergh's experiences). Five microphones hang from the roof for his use, and when the curtain rises these divide a map of the North Atalantic the serves as the backdrop into time zones. Into the 'sea' of this map is projected continuous video of water or weather or the line of the aviator's flight path. Over the course of the piece Lindbergh himself is carried from one side to the other, flown through the air inside the Spirit of St Louis – or at least a representation of its front half.

The spectacle is impressive. And the music is well worth hearing, for the score, the performances and the intriguing choices of subjects. In one part, two Scottish fishermen argue about whether they could possibly have heard a plane overhead. Another, 'Lindbergh's dialogue with his engine' is constructed from Christian Baumgärtel as Lindbergh sweetly urging his engine to finish the trip and the orchestra with a woodwind drone prominent, alternated with engine sound in response.

There isn't much drama – the text seems more educational than anything else, and for all that Baumgärtel is in fine voice as Lindbergh, when he battles against fog, snow to survive (these battles depicted as musical dialogues between choral 'weather' and Linbergh) I was more interested than excited.

Perhaps it's the influence of Brecht on the piece and this particular production (reflected in the detached attitude of the Narrator) that means we can't help viewing events that could be exciting – that could depict Lindbergh as a shining hereo rather than, as his nickname suggests "Lucky" – with a lightly comic irony.

If The Lindbergh Flight combined spectacle with its music, The Seven Deadly Sins adds dance – and drama – into the mix.

The Seven Deadly Sins is much more 'Brechtian' in the sense of political theatre. The title – which also provides the structure of this combinaton of dance and opera – is basically ironic. The 'sins' that Anna II must overcome with the help of her sister Anna I are against money rather than God.

Anna I's 'sloth' is not actively committing injustice. Her 'pride' is that she is ashamed to display her body for money, and so on. Finally, her 'envy' is of all those happy people without the fortitude to avoid those other sins.

The sisters travel across the USA to earn money for their family (who look oddly like a board of directors) to build a "little house" in Louisiana. The backdrop map of the states is projected with video close-ups of the US dollar bill – starting with plenty of play on the phrase "In God We Trust".

As you might imagine from their names, the two sisters are not exactly seperate: "We are really not two people, but only a single one," sings Anna I, and gives the example that they have one bank account. Originally, Anna II was portrayed by one dancer. Here there are seven; the sarcastic medieval morality play is emphasised as Anna I conquers the embodiments of seven different 'sins', many of appropriately demonic appearance.

The men who the Annas meet on their journey are performed by eight male breakdancers. The sight of a bunch of b-boys in suits flipping and spinning among the piles of money that fell like confetti at the end of The Lindbergh Flght is something I don't expect to see again in a hurry.

The synopsis in the programme presumably refers to the original choreography: intriguingly, events in some of the scenes as staged are considerably less detailed than those described. The note for 'anger' talks about Anna II striking a film star on set to protect a mistreated horse, to her own detriment, and being forced to apologise. Here, the boxing-gloved Anna II propels the men off stage with a few well placed stamps and continues to caper pugnatiously while Anna I rempremands her 'sin' in general terms. The first sin, 'sloth' is described as Anna II's laziness in participating in a scam – without the programme I would have missed it. While the choreography energetically supports the story decribed in Anna I's singing, it has not be used to create narrative of its own.

The lynchpin of the piece, especially with Anna II fragmented and the dancers' hands off the plot, is Anna I. Gun-Brit Barkman gives the role startling energy and emotional intensity. It must be hard work, as narrator and participant in the action, singing solo for much of the piece, but she only gets stronger as it goes on. The emotional journey, as Anna I again and again convinces her sister to overcome her scruples in the name of money, goes from calmly dishevelled to distraught, in body and voice, when they finally return home to the Mississipi and all those conquered 'sins' file back behind Anna I's body.

Typically of Brecht's method, there are unanswered questions here – if there is a problem with the system, what shall we do about it? But Barkman's performance give the piece an enormous emotional kick, combining an allegorical story, fine music and a spectacular setting into a powerful whole.


On the Art Festival website:
The Lindbergh Flight/The Flight Over The Ocean & The Seven Deadly Sins
Video of the production.
Interview with Opera stars Gun-Brit Barkmin and Christian Baumgaertel

Also in the Festival, Songs of Kurt Weill returns to the Festival Club on 12 and 13 March.

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