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Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)
Street Scene (1947)
Patricia Racette (Anna Maurrant), Paulo Szot (Frank Maurrant), Mary Bevan (Rose Maurrant), Joel Prieto (Sam Kaplan), Michael J Scott (Lippo Fiorentino), Geoffrey Dolton (Abraham Kaplan), Sarah-Marie Maxwell (Mae Jones, Nursemaid), Laurel Dougall (Nursemaid), Dominic Lamb (Dick McGann)
Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Real Madrid, Tim Murray
Dick Bird (set design, costumes), Arthur Pita (choreography), John Fulljames (director)
rec. Teatro Real, Madrid, February 2018
BELAIR CLASSIQUES BAC562 Blu-ray [160 mins]

From the earliest days of semi-opera and other attempts to combine opera with spoken dialogue, composers have not generally concerned themselves overmuch with the interface between the spoken and sung word. They were content for much of the time with the kind of “time for a song” cue, so mocked by Donizetti in La fille du régiment and Gilbert and Sullivan in their “Savoy operas”. But in the more strictly dramatic circumstances of the twentieth century composers, and those of American musicals in particular, there has been concern for the blurring of the edges between dialogue and music; that had some very interesting results. George Gershwin in Porgy and Bess drew a decided distinction between his black characters (who naturally sing) and his white characters (who are restricted to speech). That contrast was effectively ruined in the 1940s by those producers who adapted the work to the style of a Broadway musical by extending the use of the spoken word to all the characters indiscriminately. At the same time, however, Richard Rodgers was moving almost imperceptibly from speech into song through the employment of orchestral music to underpin his dialogue.

Kurt Weill in Street Scene went a step further, to the extent that he frankly described his score not as a musical but as an opera. The pioneering nature of the work, however it was described, was recognised by an initial critical success. But after its initial run of performances the score languished in distinguished obscurity until a spate of revivals and recordings in the 1980s – although the show has never returned to the Broadway where it originated. I first encountered the work, as I am sure was the case with many British listeners, in a production by English National Opera (shared with Scottish Opera). It was not only televised but also formed the basis for two distinct recordings: one from TER largely with the original ENO cast, and a more starry version by Decca with the principal roles taken by international operatic voices. The ENO television relay seems never to have made it onto DVD, so this new staging seems to be the only version of the work commercially available for home viewing. (An Arthaus DVD shown on Amazon appears almost unavailable, and at inflated prices to boot.) The performance comes from Madrid, but it is a co-production with opera houses in Monte Carlo and Cologne.

Comparisons with my memories of David Pountney’s old ENO production are almost inevitable, but it has to be said that the employment by Teatro Real Madrid of a polyglot international cast is by no means the disaster that it might have been. In the first place, Weill’s characters are themselves a ragbag of European immigrants to America from areas as far-flung as Scandinavia and Italy, so the complaints of a reviewer in Fanfare that neither of the audio recordings featured American singers and accents seems decidedly parochial. Nor should prospective viewers be deterred by the cover photograph of the set. It gives the impression of a production featuring a glitzy and sparkling New York skyline, miles removed from the gritty drama presented by Weill and the playwright Langston Hughes. This set, for the one musical number clearly designed with Broadway audiences in mind Moon-faced, starry-eyed, is very much the exception in John Fulljames’s staging. It otherwise concentrates with grim determination on the downtrodden working classes of the New York slums, whose tragedy is almost totally ignored by the world around them except as a source of scandal. Pountney at ENO similarly opened up his set to display all the razzmatazz of neon-lit New York skyscrapers for this number, only to emphasise the hopelessness of the characters as the vision faded; and here the contrast is even more extremely drawn. The complex network of apartments is precisely and realistically conveyed in the set designs of Dick Bird, who also assumed responsibility of the costumes of the period.

The operatic credentials of Patricia Racette need no emphasis from me. Here she slots perfectly into the most operatic role of the errant wife whose murder by her jealous husband is treated by the world outside the tenement with such heartlessness and wilful blindness. As her murderous spouse, who nevertheless manages to elicit some sympathy for his own helpless plight, Paulo Szot gives us a picture of the hulking bully whose only recourse to his frustration is by means of his fists; that is an interesting contrast with the darker portrait painted by Richard van Allan for ENO. Mary Bevan takes on a slighter role of their daughter, who nevertheless rises to tragic heights in her closing scene where she renounces the companionship of the hapless lover who faces a brighter future if he leaves the neighbourhood for a college education. Most of the other characters, even the lover himself sung by the personable Joel Prieto, are small cameos rather than principal operatic roles; but all are given sharply observed portrayals here, most notably Michael J Scott and Geoffrey Dolton.

The work, curiously for a Broadway show (let alone an opera) has no specifically designated chorus work, but the myriad of individual characters combine to provide a solid body of sound for the climaxes of the many ensemble passages. The two gossiping nursemaids who open the final scene come close to stealing the show. They are ably portrayed by Sarah-Marie Maxwell and Laurel Dougall. The former also participates in the big song-and-dance number with the lively Dominic Lamb, where the energetic choreography of Arthur Pita comes into its own. The conductor Tim Murray keeps the score moving. He allows the more dramatic passages full weight but at the same time relishes the more light-hearted sections – and the committed orchestral playing rivals that of the bands on the audio recordings directed by Carl Davis (TER) and John Mauceri (Decca).

The disc has no additional features, but the booklet note by Joan Matabosch is informative. The performance comes with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Korean and Japanese. A thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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