Also see Richard's review of The King and I
The fourth and final production of the season at Opera Theater of St. Louis is a visually stunning and musically impeccable reading of Kurt Weill's Street Scene, a fascinating and too rarely seen musical drama that is not exactly opera and not exactly a Broadway musical, but floats placidly above definitions in the rarified company of Porgy and Bess, Candide and a handful of others. Once again, OTSL comes through with a slew of young singers with world-class talent. The cast is enormous (I counted more than sixty people and one dog on stage for curtain calls) and it must be said that the real power of the evening is in the ensemble; the first few notes from Carolyn Betty (singing the leading role of Anna Maurrant) and Garret Sorenson (as young Sam Kaplan) let it be known that the audience is in the presence of stars of the future.
Mr. Sorenson has a lithe, sweet tenor, remarkably open and full in the upper end of his range for a singer who began as a baritone; I have heard Weill's "Lonely House" in a variety of settings by a variety of artists, but Mr. Sorenson's is the one I will remember. Miss Betty has what is to me among the rarest and most impressive of vocal qualities, an easiness that makes it seem as if all she has to do is to open her mouth and allow her big, burnished soprano to pour out. She has work to do yet on her acting and stage movement, but her portrait of a wretchedly abused adulteress is both tender and persuasive. Jeffrey Wells, as the thuggish Frank Maurrant, brings a powerful presence and strong bass-baritone to the stage.
Street Scene, which opened on Broadway in 1947, was the product of an improbable collaboration among the playwright Elmer Rice, the great African-American poet and dramatist Langston Hughes, and Weill, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany for whom America represented a kind of musical utopia, enriched by the diversity of its young and adventurous audience. Weill had been thinking and writing since the late 1930s about the idea of creating a peculiarly American form of music theater that would combine the emotional power of opera with theatrical realism in such a way as to avoid the awkwardness of plot-interrupting arias or unmotivated Broadway "numbers." After long consideration, he chose Rice's 1929 Broadway hit play, a naturalist masterpiece which examines the gritty problems of ethnicity and class in a heterogeneous culture, as a likely vehicle. Rice was deeply involved in the development of the "opera," which began before World War II, and it was the mutual recognition by the collaborators that the dialogue of the play was not particularly musical that led to their appeal to Langston Hughes, by then something of an elder statesman both in literature and in progressive politics, for help with the lyrics. Thus, from its inception, the work has been a multi-layered consideration of the problems and opportunities inherent in combining disparate elements to make a viable whole – socially, artistically, and musically.
Certainly the visual aspects of OTSL's production fit with the "e pluribus unum" theme. The set presents a forbiddingly decrepit brownstone tenement and the littered sidewalk in front of it; a steady stream of humanity moves through the scene, eddying into and out of the apartments where a polyglot population lives, works and dreams. The costumes are in muted colors and stained with the sweat and grime of survival. Bruno Schwengl, who designed the production, and Mark McCullough, who lit it, deserve great applause.
Stephen Lord conducts with his characteristic gusto and sensitivity; I would like to have been privy to his discussions with the orchestra about handling Weill's variegated score, which draws from 19th century opera as well as from the American music of the jazz age but always has Weill's lovely knack for placing melodic flowers in unexpected contexts.
In brief, Opera Theater of St. Louis has done its audiences a great favor by reviving Kurt Weill's Street Scene,a diverse examination of the problems and the potential of diversity, musically as well as dramatically. The production is visually thoughtful and appealing and beautifully played and sung.
Street Scene will be performed on June 21st and 23rd at 8 PM and on Sunday June 25th at 7 PM in the Browning Theater at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the campus of Webster University. Tickets can be ordered by phone at 314-961-0644.