Review: Seven Deadly Sins (and Holier Fare) (Against the Grain Theatre)

Classical music turned upside at Against The Grain’s Seven Deadly Sins opera and piano theatre show in Toronto

Seven Deadly Sins (and Holier Fare), the latest production by Against the Grain Theatre, evolved around the “ballet chanté” Seven Deadly Sins by Kurt Weill. This work formed the second half of the bill, while the first half featured contemporary works by Steve Reich, Benjamin Britten and John Adams.

I continue to be highly impressed with Against the Grains aims. Under the direction of Joel Ivany, the collective endeavours to “take the classics and turn them sideways”. Their productions have been held in a wide range of unusual venues. The current production was held at Gallery 345, an art space that houses two grand pianos. The performance featured dance, operatic singing and spectacular piano playing.

The program opened with “Piano Phase” by Steve Reich. The work was illustrated by dancers. The choreography took place on a raised platform behind the pianos with the movement taking place against a white wall. The silhouettes of the dancers become a part of the performance which was a really stunning effect. The composition was performed by two pianists and featured intense rhythmic contrast.

Music Director and pianist Christopher Mokrzewski made it clear in his remarks before the start of the work that they are well aware that this style of music might not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is certainly a far cry from more familiar, traditional classical music. In my opinion this work and the entire evening were a wonderful opportunity to increase exposure to modern classical works. Minimalist composer Reich was born in 1936 and is still living.

The next piece was “Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac” by Benjamin Britten. Despite the fact that Britten is highly respected in classical circles, I have never been a great fan of his works. Combined with a fairly straight telling of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, this work was my least favourite on the program. That being said, tenor Christopher Mayell and Mezzo-Soprano Erin Lawson gave fantastic performances, both vocally and dramatically. Mr. Mayell’s voice has refreshing warmth and sweetness. Ms. Lawson’s instrument is bright and engaging. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed the singing and the piano playing even if the music and content weren’t to my liking.

The final piece of the first half was piano duet “Hallelujah Junction” by John Adams. The piece is intense and the highly focused, intricate playing from pianists Daniel Pesca and Topher Mokrzewski was truly a wonder to behold. I particularly enjoyed Mr. Mokrzewski’s highly animated performance style.  His deep connection and passion for the music was very apparent.

After audience members obtained refreshments of beer and wine during the intermission, the show resumed with the featured performance of Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins, libretto by Bertolt Brecht. The satirical work tells the story of two “sisters”, Anna I and Anna II who leave their home in Louisiana to travel the world and seek their fortune. During the course of their odyssey they encounter each of the deadly sins. A singer and a dancer represent the duality of Anna’s nature rather than a true sister relationship.  Gender roles and the treatment of women are a key theme in this work. My companion was off-put by the misogyny that was depicted whereas I felt the work was satirically critical of gender roles and the place of women in society. Dancer Tina Fushell and singer Lindsay Sutherland Boal both gave spectacular performances. Ms. Sutherland Boal interpreted Weill’s work with true understanding of this composer’s style. The singing was classical without being overly pristine and her use of timbral variation captured the grittiness and raw sensuality of some of the themes. Ms. Sutherland Boal is also a talented actress. Ms. Fushell did a wonderful job of using movement to demonstrate the moral conflict of the work. Her dancing style in this piece was elegant and supple and at times agitated and frustrated. Singer, dancer and pianists had an excellent rapport, making for a very cohesive and compelling interpretation of this work.

I would highly recommend seeing any of Against the Grain’s performances. They are doing something truly unique in the realm of the Toronto classical music scene and provide an excellent opportunity to hear and experience off the beaten track works in a thoroughly non-stuffy environment.

-Seven Deadly Sins (and Holier Fare) played at Gallery 345 (345 Sorauren Ave) on May 16 and 17, 2012

Photo of Lindsay Sutherland Boal