For the final concert of its “Bach Reimagined” season, which has included Bach vocal arrangements by the Swingle Singers and a reconstructed “St. Mark Passion,” Emmanuel Music teamed up with Betsi Graves’s Urbanity Dance for an unlikely pair of topical pieces. Bach’s “The Contest Between Phoebus and Pan” (BWV 201), which premiered in 1729 Leipzig, is a satire of popular music. Kurt Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins,” which premiered in 1933 Paris, is a satire of capitalism. Both pieces are tremendous fun, though that didn’t always come across Saturday at Emmanuel Church.
In Bach’s cantata (libretto by Picander from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”), Phoebus (baritone Dana Whiteside) and Pan (baritone David Kravitz) fall out over whose music is superior, so Mercury (alto Krista River) sets up a contest, with Tmolus (tenor Matthew Anderson) and Midas (tenor Frank Kelley) as judges and Momus (soprano Susan Consoli) as an onlooker.
Phoebus represents the kind of music Bach wrote, which in his day some considered too learned; Pan represents popular music. Pan’s music is beloved of nymphs, Phoebus’s beloved of the gods, so no points for guessing who wins.
“The Seven Deadly Sins” originated as a ballet chanté (sung ballet) with libretto by Bertolt Brecht and choreography by George Balanchine. Anna I (alto Lynn Torgove) and Anna II (dancer Meghan Anderson) are sisters but also divided halves of the same person who forsakes Louisiana for America’s “great big cities” to make money so she can build a home for her family. Her travels take her to an unnamed city (Sloth), Memphis (Pride), Los Angeles (Anger), Philadelphia (Gluttony), Boston (Lust!), Baltimore (Avarice), and San Francisco (Envy), but wherever she goes, Anna is reduced to selling her body in one way or another.
Emmanuel set these pieces up as theater: audience in darkness, no texts in the program. That would have worked if the words — the Bach was sung in English (recitatives) and German (arias and choruses), the Weill in English — had been intelligible. Kravitz and Kelley, with the really funny parts, were the stars of the Bach. Torgove sang Anna I with power and feeling, but there wasn’t much sin, or satire, in her operatic performance. (Weill wrote the part for his then estranged wife, Lotte Lenya.) The Emmanuel orchestra, under artistic director Ryan Turner, was plush in both pieces, but the Weill was often too polished and too loud.
Graves’s dancers turned up everywhere: in the sanctuary, on a table in the aisle, in the organ loft, in the balcony. Urbanity’s movement style conjures a more athletic Mark Morris, with handstands and somersaults, but it was too generic for an evening in which the words didn’t register. Kicking her legs seductively, Haley Day did a nice job as the nymph besotted by Pan, and as Anna II, Meghan Anderson was a heroic innocent. She and Graves had the best moment of the evening in “Gluttony,” where the backs of her fellow dancers served as her weigh station.
“The Contest Between Phoebus and Pan,” by J. S. Bach. “The Seven Deadly Sins,” by Kurt Weill. Performed by Emmanuel Music and Urbanity Dance. At Emmanuel Church, April 9
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.