Street Scene, the Opera
When I saw the Williamstown Theatre Festival's revival of Elmer Rice's Pulitzer Prize winning play Street Scene last summer I was struck by how well this collage portrait of New York tenement life circa 1928 still played. It owes its enduring power to the richness of the characters and their every day little dramas more than the central event, a rather predictable murder. I left the theater wishing I would have a chance to also see Kurt Weill's musicalized version. Seeing an endearing Off-Broadway musical based on a play, Little Ham, by Weill's Street Scene co-lyricist Langston Hughes. (See link below) a few months ago reminded me of that wish. Thanks to the Dicapo Opera Company, a cultural jewel in the crown of New York's cultural treasures, I've now had that wished for opportunity to see Street Scene, the Opera.
While only marginally successful when presented in a Broadway theater in 1947 (Weill called his "Broadway Opera"), Street Scene has been regularly produced by various opera companies. Undoubtedly, many of these productions have been very fine, but I can't imagine one better than the one I saw last Friday in what might be described as New York's most elegant, and outstanding Off-Broadway -- or Off-Lincoln Center -- Opera House. The theater is in a church basement -- but that basement is unlike any other. It's located in one of the city's largest and most beautiful churches aand under the supervision of the non-profit opera company's general director, Michael Capasso, it has been transformed into a state-of-the art theater with 204 comfortable seats (all with perfect sight lines), orchestra pit, rehearsal rooms and a handsome lobby.
Weill and Hughes were quite faithful to Rice's play and left much of the original dialogue untouched, much of it spoken and only occasionally accompanied by underlying musical chords. The plot is largely a panorama of the intermingled lives of the residents of a crowded brownstone tenement in New York. The key figures are Anna Maurrant and her daughter Rose -- the older woman seeking escape from her marriage to an unloving, brute; the younger one coming to realize that escape means leaving her depressing surroundings and giving up a relationship for which neither she or her young adoring neighbor, Sam Kaplan, are ready. The melting pot of tenants, the frustrations and bigotry fanned by poverty as well an unbearable heat wave all contribute to the combustibility that leads yo to the melodramatic climax. (see the link to CurtainUp's review of the play for further details).
While all the main players have strong operatic backgrounds, the cast of sixty-five also includes stage actors, dancers and singers and this befits this opera's ties to both European opera and popular musicals. For a touch of Mozartian ensemble singing there's The delightful "Ice Cream Sextet." There's also a high energy Broadway style jitterbug dance routine "Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed." Call them ballads or arias, the most memorable solos are young Sam Kaplan's wistful "Lonely House" and Anna Maurrant's soaring "Somehow I Never Could Believe." and Rose Maurrant's touching "What Good Would the Moon Be?"
This enormous cast does full justice to the musical diversity and colorful characters -- that includes the children and a well-behaved dog. An unexpected bit of bravura professionalism came into play on opening night as a result of a last minute emergency. When Allison Keil, the production's Anna Maurrant, suffered from hemorrhaging that made it impossible for her to speak or sing, Ms. Keil gamely went on stage to act her role while Mary Ellen Duncan, an extra, spoke and sang as she stood unobtrusively at the side of the stage. Ms. Duncan's voice was so strong and Ms. Keil's acting sufficiently convincing that it did not spoil the enjoyment of the evening at all. If Anna and Rose (Amanda Winfield, ) look more like sisters than mother and daughter, well, that's opera. Ms. Winfield and her romantic opposite, Peter Furlong (as Sam Kaplan ) are fine singers and actors. The most powerful voice in the cast is that of bass baritone Marc Embree whose every word, whether spoken or sung, resonates powerfully through the entire house.
There are numerous standouts in the smaller roles; to name just a few: Gary Giardina, as Rose's seduction-minded boss Harry Easter; Donna Grossman as the mean-spirited gossip Emma Jones; and Ravil Atlas as the music teacher Lippo Fiorentino.
Much credit for the evening's success belongs to the orchestra and its director Elaine Rinaldi and to John Farrell for his stunning abstract set of open stairways and long venetian blinds functioning as windows. While Rice's play was originally a take off on a real house on West 65th Street , which at that time was in the shadow of the Sixth Avenue El, Mr. Farrell's staging, like Michael. Greif's for the play at Williamstown, opens up the house. This makes everything of a piece and allows us to watch overlapping scenes. This spare but highly effective set is beautifully lit by Susan Roth.
Street Scene is the third of the four operas in the 2001- 2002 Dicapo Season. It was preceded by Puccini's La Boheme and Massenet's Werther and will conclude with Pietro Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz (April 19-20, 21, 26, 27, 28).
Since I got my wish of seeing Street Scene the opera after seeing Street Scene, the play, I'll make a wish that DiCapo's future season will include more theatrically connected modern operas like A View from the Bridge and A Streetcar Name Desire.
Review of Street Scene, the play
Review of Off-Broadway revue of lyricist Langston Hughes playLittle Ham (closed but rumored to re-open)
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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