WEILL/BRECHT: Die Sieben Todsünden – Gisela May (sop.), Peter Schreier (tenor)/ Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orch. Leipzig – Brilliant Classics

WEILL/BRECHT: Die Sieben Todsünden – Gisela May (sop.)/ Peter Schreier (tenor)/ Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orch. Leipzig – 95126, 70:33 – Brilliant Classics (Distr. by Naxos) ****½:

What a difference the right style makes.

A short while ago I listened to the DVD release of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (2007), the performance with Patty Lupone and Audra McDonald. It had won two Emmys and features elaborate sets, polished singing, highly stylized acting, and peppy dance numbers. It was performed in operetta style, like another musical Lupone was in: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. But what it did not have was grit. Irony. That decadent Weimar aura.

It did not have Gisela May.

In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that they got it all wrong, despite those shiny American awards. May, on the other hand, does get it right, with a classic cabaret style that would have made Brecht & Weill proud. You can almost smell the cigar smoke. In every piece, she belts out the famous songs from their four most notable collaborations, and in one case, performs the entire book. (Die Sieben Todsünden). From the moment audiences hear the languid woodwind opening, they may never doubt they are experiencing work by a master. The pieces are even sung ragged at times. The second one, “Faulheit” (“Sloth”) is performed call-and-response style, with Peter Schreier’s bold voice answered by a quavering male chorus in the background. May’s portamento is spot-on in “Stolz” (“Pride’), imparting a louche sheen to all her plaints. The fifty-year old recording isn’t perfect and the male chorus is miked a little lopsidedly. But when the singing is most effective, it plunks May into a high-contrast audio spotlight.

The Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester Leipzig is tough and tight at all times. They adapt to the challenges of these works with spirit and imagination; for example, they hone in on the two quite different songs from Eisler’s Berliner Requiem (text also by Brecht) and tackle their idiosyncrasies.  The chorus in the first is so subtle it works like sympathetic strings on a viola d’amore. Listen to May’s chilling last notes on this one. Of the final nine cuts, the most notable are “Surabaya Johnny” (from Happy End) and “Seerauber-Jenny” (“Pirate Jenny” from Die Dreigroschenoper).  I also think that her two renditions from  The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny outdo Lupone’s. By far.

I would have given this disc five stars for the redoubtable Gisela May, the best interpreter of Weill/Brecht since Lotte Lenya. But alas, the booklet disappoints. Its text is poorly written, it has no libretto, and worst of all, no pictures! It is a minor flaw though, easily resolved by a two-minute search on the web.

—Peter Bates

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