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Weill in America

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

In the middle of Houston Grand Opera's production of Street Scene, I heard something I've never heard before in many years as an opera-goer: the audience responded with a collective intake of breath to what had just been said onstage. Not to some grisly act, just to an insult given by one neighbor to the daughter of another: "You certainly have plenty of admirers, Miss Maurrant, but I guess you come by it naturally." The audience's gasp indicated that they understood how vicious the street gossip was becoming and what harm it might do. They were totally caught up in this story of immigrant life on one street in the New York City of the 1940s.

Based on the 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Elmer Rice, Street Scene was a collaboration between Rice, who wrote the book; Langston Hughes, the fine African-American poet; and composer Kurt Weill, who had fled Nazi Germany and come to the U.S. This "melting pot" or "mosaic" collaboration is mirrored by the fascinating work that came out of it: it deals with new immigrants and those already assimilated, and its music keeps crossing the border between opera and musical comedy.

Street Scene deals with many kinds of vocal music: folk, blues, Broadway ballads and, of course, opera. Mahler and Puccini are present, as are Rogers and Hammerstein. The bitter aria of the opera's villain, "Let Things Be Like They Always Was," reminds us of Judd in Oklahoma! and prefigures the famous soliloquy in Carousel.

A few weeks after Weill's 1935 arrival in the United States, George and Ira Gershwin invited him to an orchestra rehearsal of Porgy and Bess. Weill later said, "Listening for the first time to that score, I discovered that the American theater was already well on its way to the more integrated form of musical theater that we had begun to attempt in Europe." Weill, although widely recognized in Europe as an outstanding theatrical composer, was virtually unknown by the general public in this country. Hearing Porgy, he said, gave him the courage to start work for the American stage.

Determined to write in an American idiom, Weill stopped speaking German to almost everyone but his dog, and he rejected Bertolt Brecht's invitation to continue the collaboration they had had in Germany -- the collaboration that produced The Threepenny Opera and Mahagonny. Street Scene was Weill's effort to realize what he called at times a "dramatic musical," at others "a Broadway opera." The latter designation was the way Weill really conceived this work, but he was afraid the term "opera" would scare Broadway audiences away. Or, as Oscar Hammerstein put it, "opera was a way people lost money." Weill felt that the true heart of theater and music in this country was not in the opera house, which he referred to as a museum, but on Broadway.

Dissonant operatic chords before Street Scene's first number are cut short by show-biz tunes and dialogue about the awful summer heat, as the occupants of the rust and yellow tenement buildings lean out the windows or sit on the stoops, trying to get a breath of air. Soon the inhabitants switch from the weather to another kind of heat as they gossip about Anna Maurrant (Sheri Greenawald), voicing their disapproval of her affair with the milkman. We realize that we are entering the classic story of the wife, her lover, the betrayed husband and vengeance -- one of opera's central plots, used in Un Ballo in Maschera, Cavalleria, Pagliacci, Tristan and Pelleas, to name only a few.

The gritty mood of the harsh gossips is interrupted by an expectant father's amusing song, a bouncy Broadway number about how hard pregnancy is on a man. When Mr. Maurrant enters, a different kind of father and husband -- bullying his wife and children, a menacing alcoholic -- the mood quickly changes. After he goes inside, his wife, Anna, sings her moving seven-minute soliloquy, "I Always Will Believe There Will Be a Brighter Day," which alternates a dark reality with a hopeful dream for the future. The very end of the song -- when Anna holds a long note in one key while the orchestra continues in another, struggling until, on the final chord, there is a resolution of the dissonance -- is operatic writing of the highest order.

So, how successfully do opera and Broadway cohabit in this work? Although there are some transitional moments that are unintentionally jarring, it scarcely matters, given the work's dramatic arc and musical pleasures. We are swept along to the expected, but still shocking murder of Anna by her husband, an act which also sends awry the plans of her daughter, Rose (Lee Merrill), and the shy, bookish Jewish man, Sam Kaplan (Kip Wilborn), to run away and make a new life for themselves.

Langston Hughes' lyrics are supple and fine, especially when they deal with the street's daily goings-on. To achieve authenticity he went to the house on West 65th Street that was supposed to have been Elmer Rice's model in the play. Hughes and Weill visited Harlem cabarets together to capture the blues aura they wanted for the janitor's song "I Got a Marble and a Star," and walked the streets to watch and listen to the children's street games for the opening of Act Two.

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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