Edinburgh's first staged opera this year came courtesy of the Opéra National de Lyon, whose opening show was a double-bill of works by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill - though neither is exactly a traditional opera, and the first isn't really a stage work at all.
Charles Lindbergh's solo flight over the Atlantic in 1927 was a seriously newsworthy event, and an act of huge personal bravery. Just 12 days earlier, two French pilots had lost their lives making a similar attempt. Brecht took his epoch-making journey as the subject of The Lindbergh Flight, which Weill set to music as a cantata, in which form it was premiered in Berlin in 1929. A concert piece is essentially what it remains.
In François Girard's production, there was limited theatrical excitement to be gained watching Charles Workman's Lindbergh flying sideways over a map of the Atlantic, while beneath him the chorus represented passengers on a liner, crowds at Le Bourget, and even the fog and snow he struggled through. Despite Roberto Minczuk's committed conducting Weill's score emerged as dull, its arid fugues alternating with the odd foxtrot rhythm fleeing from the smoke-filled backroom of some Weimar Republic bar. Like a lot of concert pieces, it doesn't work on stage.
Which could certainly not be said of the second Lyon show, The Seven Deadly Sins. By the time Brecht and Weill put together this short "sung ballet" for a newly created Parisian troupe in 1933, they were on poor personal terms, and this proved to be their final collaboration. But maybe some of the grit within their interaction vitalised the show itself, which is arguably their masterpiece.
It concerns two sisters - Anna I (played by a singer) and Anna 2 (played by a dancer), who work their way around America, sending money back to their greedy family in Louisiana. Inevitably, perhaps, a lot of their jobs as depicted in Brecht's biting satire on American capitalism involve selling their bodies, with Anna I - the more practical of the two, as she says - exploiting her compliant sibling as much as anyone else.
One unusual feature of Girard's staging was that Anna 2 was further divided up into a total of eight dancers, though since each of the extras looked after her own deadly sin within its own musical number, the division of the spoils proved less confusing than it might. Another oddity was that choreographer Marie Chouinard brought on board a troupe of eight male breakdancers recruited from the gang known as the Pockémon Crew, who used to practice their routines in the square outside the Lyon Opera House.
If this sounds like a feelgood, inclusive, box-ticking initiative, artistically it added further energy to a show that was already bursting with it, while at the centre was a knockout performance of Anna I from Gun-Brit Barkmin, an operatic soprano who here appropriated the talents of a jazz singer or chanteuse - which is how the role is often cast. Strikingly colourful in François Séguin's set and Thibault Vancraenenbroeck's costumes, this Seven Deadly Sins was thrilling music theatre.
Meanwhile the Proms continue to come up with enticing programmes, though the BBC Symphony Orchestra's John-Adams-conducts-John-Adams evening, Prom 38, lacked strong musical direction. Staring down at his own scores as if not quite sure what was coming next, the most performed classical composer of our time revealed limited conducting skills, and works that should have hit the spot registered as flabby. The finest piece on the programme, "The Wound-Dresser", which sets Walt Whitman's infinitely compassionate account of his experiences as a nurse during the American Civil War, was saved by bass Eric Owens's articulate exposition of the text and by Adams's own subtly mutating harmonies. But "My Father Knew Charles Ives", Adams's high-risk homage to a much greater composer, only confirmed how much better Ives's own inimitable collages are than Adams's pale pastiches, while the impressive "Harmonielehre" needed more dynamism to justify its 40-minute span.
For a lesson in conducting, Adams could have turned to Iván Fischer's flamboyant appearance with the Budapest Festival Orchestra in Prom 44. Opening with a rare and delectable set of miniatures in the shape of Dohnányi's Symphonic Minutes, he continued with a clean-edged account of Bartók's Third Piano Concerto, with Garrick Ohlsson the muscular soloist, before tackling The Rite of Spring without a score - a real high-wire act for any conductor. The orchestra's virtuosity shone in every note, and their rich, Central European palette of tone colours proved surprisingly viable for Stravinsky's primitivist masterpiece.
"What do you want to hear?" asked Fischer of the audience when it came to encore-time. Apparently we wanted to hear Brahms's Hungarian Dance No 6, which the Budapest players dashed off with panache before a handful of them transformed themselves into an authentic Zigeuner café band. It was the ideal end to an evening in which Fischer's blend of musicianship and showmanship proved unbeatable.Reuse content