LuPone deftly delivers Weill

08.10.09
Patti LuPone
Chicago Sun Times

By Hedy Weiss

Composer Kurt Weill was only 50 years old when he died in 1950, yet he'd had two lives. As Ravinia Festival music director James Conlon observed Saturday during the all-Weill program starring Patti LuPone and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, there was the Weill of 1920s Berlin, when he and Bertolt Brecht created such galvanic musical theater works as "The Threepenny Opera," "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" and "Happy End."

And then there was the Weill who fled Nazi Germany, landed in New York and embraced his new home, collaborating on Broadway shows that were perhaps too sopisticated for their own good.

The music of the Berlin years was full of seductive melodies infused with a mix of both jazz and the European classical tradition, with Brecht's caustic writing adding a crucial bite. In New York, Weill produced many lushly lyrical songs that became treasured entries in the American songbook, even if the shows they were part of are rarely revived.

It was during a brief period in Paris in 1933, before Weill left Europe for the United States, that he and Brecht wrote "The Seven Deadly Sins," a morality play initially envisioned as a ballet. And this work was the focus of the first half of Saturday's program.

LuPone (on book during several sections) was in superb voice, and was expertly accompanied by the CSO and Hudson Shad, the male quartet possessed of both formidable voices and distinctive faces. She deftly captured the edgy subtleties of this work's dual-voiced interior monologue -- the story of Anna, a young woman who leaves her small hometown in Louisiana to make her fortune in seven big cities, and who, along the way, becomes reshaped. Continually rationalizing her choices, the pragmatic Anna sells out her more artistic, idealistic, emotional self as she learns what it takes to succeed. And she discovers that "the world is a snare."

Ravinia's newly installed video screens worked wonderfully here, with the lyrics clearly projected on the screen, even if the rather unforgiving, high-def closeups of the singers and musicians caught their flushed, sweat-stained faces on an exceedingly muggy night.

The program's second half featured a collection of Weill's songs from both halves of his life -- some widely known, a few lovely discoveries. Two from "Love Life," a 1948 show with a book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, were true revelations, with LuPone giving passionate, memorable renderings of "Mr. Right" and "Susan's Dream" (the latter a song dropped from the show).

A fiery, angry performance of "Surabaya Johnny" (from "Happy End") showed LuPone at her very best. And her interpretations of two Weill classics -- the piercingly honest "September Song" and cool, neatly tabloidlike "Mack the Knife" -- were exemplary.

For encores, LuPone -- a woman who clearly loves to sing -- was backed by Ravinia's CEO, Welz Kauffman, an expert piano accompanist. Her strong, feverish performance of "Je Ne T'aime Pas" (a torchy number written during Weill's Paris sojourn) was followed by a heartfelt, prayerlike take on "Lost in the Stars."