‘Seven Deadly Sins,’ a sung ballet well worth seeing

Maybe it’s the setting, beyond a maze-like warren of booths in an antiques market. Maybe it’s the boozy, chatty nightclub atmosphere with bottles of wine flowing at every table. Maybe it’s the beautiful women lounging onstage before the show begins in little more than gartered stockings and bustiers.

Whatever it is, viewers arriving at the Atlanta Opera’s latest production will be clued in pretty early on that what’s in store for them is far from a typical night at the opera. The version of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “The Seven Deadly Sins” at Le Maison Rouge nightclub in the Paris on Ponce market is part of the opera company’s Discoveries Series, which places small-scale productions in unusual places around town.

“The Seven Deadly Sins” technically is not an opera, but a sung ballet, or ballet chanté (fun to watch and fun to say). This ballet chanté — it’s practically the only one of its kind — tells the story of two sisters, both named Anna, who leave their home in Louisiana to seek their fortune in a series of seven American cities. At each stop, they’re tempted into one of the sins.

The role of the pragmatic, money-focused Anna I is always performed by a singer, and the nearly silent role of the more sensitive, timid Anna II is customarily performed by a dancer. A small chorus represents the greedy family back home, always urging the sisters to send more money by whatever means necessary.

Brecht and Weill’s darkly funny one-act show clocks in at a swift 45 minutes, and one of the many charming innovations of the production is the addition of a pre-show “first act.” As theatergoers arrive, a few dancers and scantily clad chorus members are hanging out backstage, awaiting the arrival of the show’s big star, who is uncustomarily late. To pass the time and to warm up — fortunately the pianist has arrived early — they perform some Weill tunes.

We discover that they all seem to have interesting back stories and personalities, which they express through the songs. Versions of tunes like “Mack the Knife,” “Alabama Song,” and “Yukalai” are impossible not to like here in lively, emotional performances that resonate as part of a mini-narrative.

Eventually the star does arrive, and on some nights that star is none other than renowned mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore (She performs the role Oct. 3 and 5. Atlanta Opera Studio Artist mezzo-soprano Gina Perregrino performs the role Oct. 4 and 6). Larmore is best-known for her performances in coloratura and bel canto roles (she is making her role debut as Anna I with the Atlanta Opera) but one of her many strong qualities is the ability to truly act in a theatrical sense, an often all-too-rare quality in bel canto singers. It serves her especially well here. She’s intense as Anna I, the absolute center of the show, and her lush voice sounds splendid in the intimate setting. She brings out fascinating, sinister qualities of introspection and confession in the piece. Her arrival is certainly worth the wait.

Dancer Meg Gillentine performs as Anna II, and director Brian Clowdus effectively uses her to play with the idea of doubling, dressing the two lead performers identically and using full-length mirrors on wheels as moving set-pieces throughout the show. Gillentine’s interesting choreography integrates the show’s song and story, sound and visuals, one of the most challenging aspects of staging “Sins,” I would imagine.

Conductor Rolando Salazar’s musical world is effective, if sparse; by the end, I found myself longing for more intricacy and detail from more instruments than the small, pared-down venue provided. And performing the show in English certainly makes it more accessible, but the original language would better suit the production’s sinister, surreal vibe.

Although “The Seven Deadly Sins” is not technically an opera, the production is certainly operatic in a significant way: What Clowdus and the performers evoke is opera’s ability, through a synthesis of music and theater, to create a weird, hallucinatory, immersive world. Ticket-holders who get the chance to experience it should count themselves lucky: The remaining performances are nearly all sold out.

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