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Street Scene was Kurt Weill's bid to write the Great American Opera. He collaborated with Elmer Rice to adapt Rice's play, muting the political and enhancing the personal message. The brilliant libretto is by Langston Hughes. In 1947, Street Scene premiered with a run of 128 performances – mediocre for Broadway musicals but stellar for an opera. Thursday evening's performance by Brevard Music Center's Janiec Opera Company made a strong case that Weill succeeded.
In contrast to the surreal characters of Die sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins, Weill's last work with a German libretto), Street Scene depicts real people, immigrants living in Manhattan's Lower East Side. In 1933, Die sieben Todsünden displayed all the irony and negativity of humanitarian artists living in a decaying Europe. In 1947, after victory over Nazism, Street Scene is optimistic and upbeat, despite the difficulties of tenement life. In the twenty-four hours of the play we are exposed to spousal abuse, adultery, seduction, religious tension, eviction, and murder, but also birth, young love, and above all a resolve to make a new life in America.
BMC stage director Dean Anthony, appearing in a pre-concert talk with cultural historian Joseph Horowitz and Maestro Robert Moody, remarked that he had sung in thirty-five Madame Butterflys and "it didn't change me," but appearing in a 1994 production of Street Scene was "one of the things that I carry with me for life." Twenty-five years ago, Anthony and Moody had both worked with conductor Kim H. Kowalke and Lys Symonette (who had been rehearsal pianist for the original New York production) and have a deep understanding that to succeed, the performers must "keep it real" in this opera.
We sometimes neglect the importance of a good libretto. Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote libretti for Mozart's Don Giovanni, Marriage of Figaro, and Cosi fan tutte, and we are forever indebted to him for the added strength his words give to the music. Langston Hughes, the most noted poet of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote the libretto for Street Scene, and he was an inspired choice by Weill. As just one example, in the aria "Somehow I Never Could Believe," Hughes tells the story of a failing marriage in seven minutes. A flower from the wedding bouquet has been pressed in a book. Years later, the flower is retrieved. The imagery is telling: "the flower's dry, the perfume gone, the petals grey." Hughes and Weill also depict the only African-American character, the janitor Henry Davis (ably played in this production by baritone Franklin Mosley), as marginal to the action. "The Ice Cream Sextet" uses seven singers, with the janitor being the only one of the seven who does not get an ice cream cone. Everyone treats this as normal.
Just as the tenements were melting pots for nationalities becoming American, so Weill's opera is a melting pot of established styles and at the same time a nod to the future. There are elements of gospel, blues, jazz, swing, 1940's Broadway, and late Romantic/early 20th century Italian operas. Weill uses leitmotifs for each of the principal characters. We get hints of Leonard Bernstein, a composer of the next generation, in Weill's delightful "Ice Cream Sextet." "Lonely House" (a solo for the young Sam Kaplan) and "We'll Go Away Together" (a duet for Sam and the next-door Irish Catholic girl Rose Maurrant) must have influenced Richard Rodgers when he wrote "Bali Hai" two years later. Several threads of serious drama intertwine in the plot, and the most serious moments invoke the most conventionally operatic. Giacomo Puccini (or perhaps Rugierro Leoncavallo on one of his better days) could have written "Somehow I Never Could Believe," the show-stopping first-act soprano aria.
The set, the costumes, the lighting, the moon behind the clotheslines in the nighttime close of Act One – all of these contributed to a fine production. The cast includes thirty singing roles, seven speaking roles, a half dozen walk-ons and a small mob of children. All were adequate to their roles or better. I'm not sure how the back stage logistics were worked out at the Porter Center, but the stage action was exemplary, except for the dog Queenie (played by Dean Anthony's Snow) who missed a cue and had to be dragged off stage. The student singers are mostly in their early twenties, concentrating on the careful development of their vocal apparatus, so it would be unhealthy for them to strain. We do not expect the power of mature opera stars. Maestro Moody frequently put a finger to his lips or palms-down motioned to the thirty-piece pit orchestra to play more softly.
Notable among the singers, in no particular order, were dramatic soprano Amanda Palmeiro (Anna Maurrant), lyric soprano Anna Montgomery (Rose Maurrant), tenor Taylor Rawley (Sam Kaplan), tenor Daniel Weisman (Daniel Buchanan), and bass-baritone Joel Rogier (Frank Maurrant). In their cameo appearance in the hilarious "Lullaby," Amy Yarham and Esther Atkinson stole our hearts. And the "fast" couple played by mezzo-soprano Adina Triolo and baritone Michael Pandolfo were the beneficiaries of some outstanding choreography. Or perhaps the choreography was the beneficiary of their ability to jitterbug.
To read a review of BMC's performance of Die sieben Todsünden earlier this month, go here.
There will be one more performance of Street Scene this year. Don't miss it. See our sidebar for details.