FAIRFAX CITY, Va., October 11, 2018. I first chanced to see Kurt Weill’s Street Scene back in 2002. That summer, the Wolf Trap Opera Company presented a lavish production of the opera at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center. I still remember being greatly impressed by the quality of that production. Fast forward. The Virginia Opera company’s smashing 2018 production of Street Scene wraps up this weekend at Richmond’s Carpenter Theatre. You should see it.
I caught the show his this Sunday past at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts. Truthfully, I found it even better than the production I attended at Wolf Trap.
Is Street Scene really an opera?
Weill’s intriguing Street Scene (1947) is part opera, part singspiel and a little bit of Broadway wrapped up into one. An indirect offspring of George Gershwin’s pathbreaking Porgy and Bess, Street Scene marks yet another step in the evolution – and entanglement – of a distinctly American opera genre, sung in colloquial American English, that borrows generously from Broadway musical theater’s innovations and generally down-to-earth characters and plots.
Life and troubled times of Kurt Weill
Born in Germany in 1900, Kurt Weill initially enjoyed a productive and highly original musical career in that country. He reached a major pinnacle of fame when he collaborated with author and playwright Bertolt Brecht to create his genuine 20th century operatic masterpiece, The Threepenny Opera (1928).
But, being of Jewish birth and leftist persuasion, Weill made the difficult but fortuitous decision to flee from Nazi Germany in March of 1933. First alighting in Paris, then in London, he wisely chose to leave the European continent entirely.
Weill crossed the Atlantic and settled in New York City in the fall of 1935. Thoroughly at home in this bustling center of modern musical theater, he continued to compose and prospered in this environment. His circle of artistic, musical and Hollywood friends soon grew to include luminaries such as Elia Kazan, Harry Morgan, John Garfield, Lee J. Cobb, Will Geer, Clifford Odets, Howard Da Silva and Irwin Shaw.
Weill eventually became a U.S. citizen in 1943. But his life was cut tragically short when he suddenly succumbed to a heart attack in 1950. His final pair of works for musical theater were Street Scene and Lost in the Stars (1949), both tragic, Broadway-style operas, with the latter based in then-rigidly apartheid South Africa.
Street Scene: The story line
Street Scene boasted a decent Broadway run and copped the first Tony Award for Best Original Score. Lost in the Stars was recently revived here in the Washington National Opera’s moving 2016 Kennedy Center production.
Based on a popular original play by Elmer Rice, with lyrics penned by the renowned American poet Langston Hughes, Weill’s Street Sceneis set in a New York tenement sometime in the first third of the 20th century. Operatically, it looks back to Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and ahead to Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.
The two-track plot of Street Scene follows the tragic life-arc of a pair of ill-fated couples. Married to an ill treated by her drunken lout of a husband Frank (Zachary James), Anna Maurrant (Jill Gardner) begins a secret love affair with the friendly neighborhood milkman, Steve Sankey (Chris Korkalo).
In the meantime, her young adult daughter Rose (Maureen McKay) is aggressively pursued by a neighborhood thug even as she is reluctantly attracted to the ardent but kind neighborhood egghead, law student Sam Kaplan (David Blalock).
Neither woman’s situation is helped much by the constant gossiping and backbiting of the neighborhood denizens who, for much of the time, don’t seem to have anything better to do.
Both these budding relationships come to a tragic and rather deterministic end due to an almost inevitable double-murder that brings the opera to a gloomy close.
Weill’s leftist politics
As with many of Weill’s musical stage works, the plot, setting and characters echo the composer’s anti-capitalist, Marxist sentiments, blaming the brutal inevitabilities of down-and-out urban life on economic determinism.
Weill’s personal politics find their clearest projection in the speechifying by Sam’s hard-nosed Communist grandfather Abraham (Alan Fischer). He bitterly denounces the “system” early on in this opera, giving the dramatic action some philosophical underpinning in addition to the emotional undercurrent.
Unlike Threepenny Opera, however, Weill leaves his Marxism at the door for the most part. He proceeds to develop his music and story on a more personal level, letting the characters themselves and their emotions and ambitions advance the story line. That saves the audience from having to involve itself with even more partisan politics in our current era, where many of us find that there’s entirely too much of it.
The Virginia Opera production of Street Scene: Period realism in a small space
While not as extensive or lavish as the 2002 Wolf Trap production, the Virginia Opera’s Street Scene is tailored to fit somewhat smaller stages. It works perfectly in somewhat smaller venues like works perfectly venues like the GMU Center for the Arts.
Meticulously designed by David Hartwell, the production’s static central set, realistically depicting tenement building Number 346, anchors both the characters and the “street scene” mood. The residents of 346 as well as their surrounding neighborhood live constantly in a grim, soul-deadening “No Exit” situation. That said, like neighbors everywhere, they generally try to make the best of it, finding enjoyment where they can.
The contemporary musical idiom of Street Scene, circa 1947
Weill’s score is, well, very Weill. Unfurling at the opening curtain with nearly atonal dissonance, Weill’s music soon dissolves into a jazzy, more popular-styled idiom, mixing Broadway-style tunes and chorus numbers with verismo opera elements like extended sung dialogue. Weill’s music is equally notable for its wry, acidic, satirical moments, nasty little tunes and phrases à la Threepenny Opera that somehow come off humorously in the end.
Similar both to earlier German singspiels and later Broadway musicals, Street Scene also has extended bits of spoken dialogue that serve to advance the plot more efficiently.
Large cast and a large and wonderful chorus
This Virginia Opera Street Scene is notable for its large cast of singers and actors That’s somewhat unusual in theatrical and musical theater productions these days due to the expense. But this being opera, I’ll focus on the principal singers here.
Before that, though I’d like to note right up front that the Virginia Opera’s chorus was tight, crisp, and enthusiastically on-the-money throughout. Top notch, folks. And an additional hat tip to Assistant Conductor and Chorus master Deniz Uz for a job well done.
As we’ve been seeing for many years now, opera is no longer a stand up and sing proposition. Today’s audiences not only expect an opera’s lead singers to be first class. They also demand first-class acting from these singers, the end result of which is more realistic and sympathetic storytelling. This production serves up both in ample portions.
Meet the Maurrants
As Anna Maurrant, Jill Gardner wavers believably between the harshness and fear of her real life and her hopes for a romantic and fulfilling future, successfully veering from one emotion to the other in one of this opera’s best-realized vocal performances.
As her counterpart, antagonist and husband Frank, Zachary James is her perfect foil. Tall and imposing, with a snarling vocal approach to match, Mr. James is the ideal opera villain, a genuinely bad guy who betrays no redeeming social qualities. That is, until the very end of the opera when we finally catch a glimpse of what’s been driving him.
Maureen McKay’s Rose Maurrant arrives late in the opera’s first half. Subsequently, as a vocalist, she gets one of the hardest challenges in this production. Rose is not only the opera’s younger female romantic lead. Additionally, she serves as the opera’s “central intelligence.” She the action for us and helping us understand to some extent those things that defy understanding. She speaks, in a way, for the composer and serves as the opera’s moral compass.
From a vocal standpoint, Ms. McKay also gets to sing some of Weill’s most romantic and emotional music, articulating it flawlessly throughout.
Meet Sam Kaplan
As Sam Kaplan, the opera’s second young romantic lead, David Blalock turns in a fine performance as the really good guy Rose should be falling for. Hard. But, typical of many male romantic heroes of the era, he’s too thoughtful and socially awkward. Worse, he’s an intellectual in a neighborhood that doesn’t exactly fancy the type. And worst of all, he and Rose have been “pals” since childhood – often the worst impediment of all to romance.
Nonetheless, as Sam, Mr. Blalock gamely keeps trying. In the process, he gets to sing some of this opera’s most wistful moments. And he sings them well, gathering the audience to his side in this complex romantic tangle. He does so even if it seems unlikely he’ll win the girl in the end.
A little more on the music of Street Scene
As I’ve noted, a considerable variety of music populates this opera. It ranges from popular song to Broadway-style ensembles and dance numbers. The musical pallette also include silly songs (like the “Ice Cream Sextet”), jazzy bits and symphonic experimentation. Cast and chorus negotiate this opera’s mood consistently well. They effortlessly shift vocal approaches to flow along with Weill’s abrupt switches in musical style. This is a tight, seamless production. Notably, it demonstrates that the Virginia Opera commitment to excellence in the coming years.
Maestro Adam Turner and the Virginia Symphony
And lest we forget. The Virginia Opera orchestra meshed perfectly with the chorus and cast. The resulting blend was contemporary, jazzy yet classically mellow. Actually members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, they were ably conducted by Adam Turner, the company’s newly appointed artistic director.
The “invisible hand” of Stage Director Dorothy Danner
Finally, a well-deserved hat tip to Dorothy Danner who serves as stage director for the company’s production of Street Scene. Marshaling a large cast in a relatively small space and making it all seem completely realistic is no mean feat. But Ms. Danner accomplished it in the best way possible. She made it seem as if all the characters and ensembles were spontaneously unfolding from inner space rather than outside.
Where was the Northern Virginia audience for this wonderful matinee production on Sunday?
This opera’s only negative: the GMU Sunday audience. Or lack thereof. Operagoers need to keep open minds about “modern” American operas. That includes this “modern” opera, which is now 71 years old. Those who did attend certainly got their money’s worth with a great production. Those who stayed home seriously missed a change to add to their repertoire of favorites.
I’d like to challenge Northern Virginia’s “stay at homes.” Why no give this company’s unfamiliar offerings more of a chance? No, not every one will be a winner. But at any point in life, why not do something different once in a while? You never know. You might find yourself pleasantly surprised.
Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)
The Virginia Opera is a movable feast. Launching most productions first in their home city, Norfolk, Virginia, the company then goes on the road. Next stops are Fairfax County and Richmond.
The company’s final performances of Street Scene conclude this weekend at Richmond’s stunningly picturesque Carpenter Theatre.
Performance dates: October 12 and 14 (m).
The address: 600 E. Grace St., Richmond, VA.
Tickets and information: Tickets priced from $15-$110. Call 866-673-7282. Or visit the Virginia Opera website.