Weill in America

Inspired by Porgy and Bess, Street Scene brings an American earnestness to the august art of opera

The Rice book is serviceable, but somewhat formulaic. Like much American literature from that pre-Depression/Depression period, Rice's play is often more interested in the political function of narrative than in the words, or in subtle or insightful characterization. Rice worked in the tradition of Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, a dreadful earnestness pervading his writing. I can't imagine wanting to see the original play without the magic that Weill and Hughes provide.

Weill must have desired a certain earnestness when he approached Rice about their collaboration. Perhaps Weill saw earnestness as quintessentially American, which I believe it is. We are not, on the whole, an ironic people. So don't expect the satirical sharpness of "Mack the Knife."

But do expect an absolutely first-rate performance: from staging, acting and singing to sets, costumes, conducting and orchestral playing. Francesca Zambello's direction is impeccable. She is one of the most innovative directors in today's opera world. She has the good sense to anchor the work in a realistic setting, but stylize it so the opera's mounting tensions are emphasized; they are not simplified, but clarified.

The set, by Adrianne Lobel, is very fine, providing a world we enter almost as if watching from a tenement across the street. Zambello describes it as having an Edward Hopper quality, and it does. Mimi Jordan Sherin's lighting and Martin Pakledinaz's costumes change from bright to darker as the opera develops, subtly emphasizing the story.

Conductor Ward Holmquist moves things along and deals effectively with the Broadway/opera modes. The orchestra, though it played well, seems too large; a leaner sound would be better. Was it bigger than the 35 members originally called for? Perhaps the powers-that-be decided to use a larger orchestra because one was available, just the way that since the opera moved to the Wortham -- which evidently has the capacity to make unpleasantly perfumed steam -- clouds, mists and various forms of murk come forth in almost every production. They don't in this one, but I bet that when I go to Lucia di Lammermoor, which is in repertory with Street Scene, Scottish mist will be present. With orchestras and with steam, sometimes less is much, much more.

As for the singers: amazing! Such a large cast that can sing and act -- and, in two cases, dance (as they demonstrated in the show-stopping jitterbug number, "Moon-faced, Starry-eyed"). Some of the performers come from the world of musical comedy, but here the advantage of seeing this work in an opera house is evident. I attended the 1947 Broadway production and have refreshed my memory of it by listening to the original-cast recording. HGO's cast is definitely superior. Sheri Greenawald has just the right slightly overripe sexiness for the role of Anna Maurrant, her voice both dramatically inflected and soaring. Former HGO studio member Lee Merrill sings daughter Rose's role with a lovely, perfectly controlled soprano. As Rose's suitor, Kip Wilborn has a lyrical tenor voice that is both expressive and pleasing. Robert McFarland's Frank Maurrant is appropriately menacing.

It is impossible to mention the entire cast individually. It is also impossible to imagine how they could be better. No, I take that back -- most of the assumed foreign accents are unconvincing. A small quibble.

Let's hope that in future years HGO will perform Lost in the Stars, Weill's l976 dramatic musical set in South Africa. It is even finer than Street Scene.

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