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Marc BLITZSTEIN (1905-1964)
The Cradle will Rock (1936-1937)
Ginger Costa-Jackson (Moll), Audrey Babcock (Mrs. Mister), Matt Boehler (Mr. Mister)
Opera Saratoga/John Mauceri
rec. 2017, Spa Little Theater, Saratoga Springs, USA
BRIDGE 9511 A/B [57:03+54:23]

This first CD issue of Marc Blitzstein’s ‘play in music’ The Cradle will Rock makes an important contribution towards our understanding of American music theatre. The genesis of the 1936-1937 work and its first performance are a fascinating story. This is very clearly articulated in the excellent booklet notes accompanying this performance, and in a recorded explanation by the composer himself.

Blitzstein was the senior of his friend Leonard Bernstein by thirteen years, and like Bernstein he was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. The two both attended the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, though not at the same time, while Blitzstein also studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and in Berlin with Arnold Schoenberg. His artistic outlook was much influenced by experiencing the years of the Depression, and he became aware of the politically committed works of Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler. Given this rich pedigree, it is no surprise that The Cradle will Rock is such an interesting work.

Like Weill’s Mahagonny, this is an allegorical piece about corruption, greed and hypocrisy. Its subject of unionisation in the U.S. steel industry was more than a little too close to home for the American authorities and right-wing politicians. The first performance came about in a collaboration with the 21-year-old Orson Welles, no less, and the details are outlined not only in the booklet, but also in a fifteen-minute recorded presentation by Blitzstein himself. To cut a long story short, the planned first performance, which was supported by state money, was banned at the last minute. Thanks to Welles’s ingenuity, it was given instead in a different theatre, but with the orchestra replaced by a piano played by Blitzstein himself. Soon after, Leonard Bernstein – then not yet twenty – led a Harvard performance of this version, and some ten years later, he performed it with orchestra during his tenure with the New York City Symphony. No wonder Bernstein came under suspicion during the McCarthy era. In light of all this, Blitzstein’s influence on Bernstein was palpable, and in particular makes links with On the Waterfront and West Side Story.

John Mauceri has all the appropriate credentials to lead this performance, recorded live at Opera Saratoga in New York. It is also the first complete recording of the original orchestral version to have been made. There is an extensive cast. Many of the roles are small and largely just spoken, but several of the principals are notable singers with international careers who have made their mark at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Ginger Costa-Jackson, Audrey Babcock and Matt Boehler are among several who distinguish themselves. The orchestra also plays with aplomb.

The Cradle will Rock is something of a hybrid. If classed as an opera it follows the precedent going back to The Magic Flute of using music in combination with rather a lot of spoken dialogue. As such, this particular production has great momentum and works well enough on CD without the visual element. The substantial booklet contains useful essays by Howard Pollock and John Mauceri himself. Although there is no synopsis, a full libretto is included.

Terry Barfoot

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