Or, How I Weilled away Saturday afternoon.
This wasn’t my first time seeing Street Scene. I saw the English National Opera production twice (once when I was in the Sixth Form, once as an undergraduate, both times from the really cheap seats), and I own, somewhere, a copy of the DVD of the Houston Opera production. I’m not much of an opera fan (this is where certain friends will start throwing things at me, I think), and I would rather do nearly anything, including have several kinds of outpatient surgery, than sit through most of the Brecht/Weill collaborations in any form other than individual songs taken out of context,* but I love this particular piece (the recording of the first iteration of the ENO production – which features a certain Ms. Catherine Zeta Jones in a supporting role, years before she became Princess Spartacus – I think that was almost the last thing she did that was in any way interesting, actually, but I digress – has been on my iPod ever since I’ve owned an iPod. I originally bought it on cassette). I’m one of those people who vastly prefers Weill’s American scores to his work with Brecht, and I would travel a long way to see a production of Street Scene (or Lady in the Dark, or One Touch of Venus, or… you get the idea).
And, in fact, I did travel a reasonably long way to see this. About a 180-mile round trip, in fact, to Hull, where the Opera Group/Young Vic coproduction, which was first seen in London in 2008, played three performances at the Hull Truck Theatre (whose new-ish home, on Ferensway, is very, very nice indeed, and a vast improvement over their previous building). Saturday’s performance, obviously, was on a very different scale from the ENO production I saw – the ENO’s London home is the Coliseum, which seats over 2300 and has a huge stage and a traditional proscenium arch, whereas this production originated at the Young Vic, which seats 420, has a thrust stage, and is frankly rather cramped. The result, obviously, lacks the grandeur that a production in a full-sized opera house would have, but the gains outweigh the losses.
It helps a great deal that we’re given the full orchestration, despite the production’s reduced scale. Street Scene presents a 24-hour slice of life in a New York tenement block; there are a lot of principal roles, and the piece lends itself to a large-scale presentation, which this is not. The rudimentary set consists, essentially, of two staircases and some dustbins, but that leaves space for a 28-piece orchestra – the Southbank Sinfonia, under the direction of Tim Murray – to occupy two levels at the back of the stage. The score has one foot in the opera house and one foot in golden-era Broadway, and ‘classical’ orchestras in this country are not always entirely at home with this kind of music – too often the results end up being a little inflexible in passages where the music is supposed to swing – but the playing here is absolutely impeccable. There’s no amplification, no sound system, no electronic intervention of any kind, just superb players playing a superb score. Given the prevalence these days of reduced orchestrations in musical theatre revivals – and Street Scene, though it’s at least as much opera as musical, was originally presented on Broadway rather than in an opera house – the orchestra alone is worth the price of admission.
They’re matched by a terrific cast of fourteen adults plus a large team of children. Elena Ferrari is magnificent as the doomed Anna Maurrant, and Joanna Foote is at least her equal as her daughter Rose (Foote was either an understudy or a last-minute replacement for Susanna Hurrell; the rest of the cast applauded her at the curtain call, and she deserved it – you would never have guessed she didn’t originate the role). Even better, if anything, is Paul Curievici as Rose’s would-be suitor Sam Kaplan; his stunning, intense “Lonely House” is the production’s musical highlight. There’s lovely character work from Simone Sauphanor, Charlotte Page and Harriet Williams as Mrs. Maurrant’s three gossiping neighbours, and from Kate Nelson as both Mrs. Kaplan and the flighty Mae Jones (she and John Moabi set fire to “Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed”, and do full justice to Arthur Pita’s sizzling choreography). The chorus of children are absolutely charming. There are certain constraints imposed by the production’s relatively small scale – the chorus music is sung by the ensemble, which creates a problem in “The Woman Who Lived Up There” (which is supposedly sung by witnesses/bystanders who do not know the protagonists) – but the closeness of the performers to the audience pays enormous dividends in terms of the piece’s overall emotional impact; director John Fulljames has drawn very impressive acting performances from his cast, and I found this staging both more moving and, oddly, more thrilling than the much, much larger production I saw at the ENO twenty years ago.
The bad news is that this production – whose stint at the Young Vic deservedly received superlative reviews – played fewer than a dozen performances outside of London, tickets were not particularly expensive (£20 in Hull), and yet at the matinée I attended the house was less than half full. It’s a pity – this was a glorious production of a glorious score, it’s a piece that’s rarely done on this kind of intimate scale, and it deserved a bigger audience (maybe it would have found a bigger audience in a larger city – aside from three performances in Edinburgh, the few tour dates seemed to carefully avoid Britain’s largest conurbations). While I’m sure I’ll get to see Street Scene again – for a start, I can always dig out the DVD – I suspect it’ll be a long time before I see a production of it where I can see the whites of everyone’s eyes. It was well worth the journey; I only wish I’d had the opportunity to see it more than once.
* It’s not Weill, it’s Brecht. There’s something about Brecht’s writing, I’m afraid, that sets my teeth on edge. I’ve read the theory and I’ve seen the major titles, some of them in multiple productions, and after years of trying I’ve come to the conclusion that Brecht and I just plain do not get on. Weill’s music, in their collaborations, sweetens the pill a bit, but only a bit – I honestly prefer the stuff he wrote in America.