LENOX — Times are bad now, times were bad then. The Tanglewood Music Center proved the durability of capitalist greed and unjust death Monday night with a double bill of works from the dark days of the 20th century, Weill's "The Seven Deadly Sins" and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14.
The performances left the audience cheering, but the cheers had to be for the music and the gifted, seemingly indefatigable student singers, players and conductors who brought this darkness into light. There was no way the messages could leave you uplifted. In these works, the bad guys win every time.
The program, along with a memorial celebration in the afternoon, was dedicated to the memory of Phyllis Curtin, whose master classes for 51 years were a TMC magnet for vocal students. Still an opera and recital star when she first devoted herself to teaching, she died on June 5 at the age of 94.
By coincidence, Curtin had sung in the American premiere of the Shostakovich Fourteenth, with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Adding to the poignancy, two of her former TMC students, soprano Dawn Upshaw and baritone Sanford Sylvan, joined five current students who shuttled in and out as soloists in the 11 songs that make up the symphony. Both are now TMC faculty members.
"The Seven Deadly Sins," with a libretto with Weill's frequent collaborator Bertolt Brecht, is a hybrid musical. Anna, a poor young woman from Weill's imagined state of "Mississippi," goes to the big cities of America to seek her fortunes. She winds up a prostitute, crushed everywhere by the forces of what we'd now call the 1 percent.
The TMC production, professionally directed by Nicholas Muni, was a compromise. Ideally, there are two Annas — one the singer, the other her sister and double, Anna 2, a dancer.
Fleur Barron, a multi-talented TMC singer-dancer, took on both roles, often flashing a two-sided painting to show which Anna she was. A chorus of four thuggish men, her "family," commented on her woes and on society's evils generally. Nuno Coelho conducted a larger than pit-sized orchestra. The upshot was a strongly sung and acted performance — especially by Barron, who seemed a natural Weill anti-heroine — but one that lacked some of Weill's satirical bite.
Supertitles screened an English translation of the German text, as they did for the Russian in Shostakovich.
The Shostakovich Fourteenth offered no relief — nor should it have — from an inevitable march of death, especially for the young, gifted and innocent. Texts by four poets — Lorca, Apollinaire, Kuchelbecker (the only Russian) and Rilke — grieve over suicide, imprisonment and other unnatural causes in songs that alternate between male and female soloists.
Christian Reif led a gripping immersion into the nearly hour-long work. The small orchestra of strings and percussion generated tones that ranged from the icy to the sardonic, from the howling to the almost inaudible. The singing, though variable in vocal power, was consistently to the point and affecting.
"The sunset bellows like a cow," the singer laments amid snarling drums and xylophone in the military death rattle of "On the Alert." The words make no sense. In this context, they made all the sense in the world.