Tuesday 20 September 2011

Review of Street Scene

John Fulljames's production of Kurt Weill's Street Scene was first seen in 2008, a co-production between The Opera Group, the Young Vic and the Watford Palace Theatre. The Opera Group and the Young Vic have now revived the production. It opened on the 15th September and we saw it on Friday 16th, at the Young Vic; the production will tour to Basingstoke, Newport, Edinburgh and Hull.

Weill based Street Scene on the play by Elmer Rice. For the opera Weill collaborated with Rice, with lyrics by Langston Hughes. Described as an American opera, the piece is essentially an opera comique (spoken dialogue) which uses Broadway idoms, but requires trained voices. I first saw the piece in the early 90's in a West End production which was a one-off Sunday night charity performance, notable for a number of star cameos (Alec Mcowen as Harry Easter and Elaine Page as a nurse-maid). The production was notable for the opportunity it gave to hear Street Scene in the theatre for the fist time, and for the theatrical vividness and dramatic impetus which it brough to the work. Janis Kelly was Rose, a role she repeated when ENO/SO collaborated on a production by David Pountney. These performances failed to recapture the vividness and narrative propulsion which I'd remembered from the West End. Despite seeing the ENO/SO production a number of time in London and Glasgow, I found the long first act always sagged. I began to wonder whether I had overestimated the work. So it was with pleasure and relief to find Fulljames's excitingly theatrical production was full of energy and the first act certainly never sagged.

It helped that Fulljames and his cast were performing the piece in a very small theatre. Dickie Bird's set consisted of a bare metal multi-storey structure which provided the basic outline of the tenament location. Bird cleverly utilised the Young Vic's structure to create the plethora of entrances and exits and playing levels needed. The band were housed on two levels within the set so that they were far more visible than if they'd been in a pit. In front, cutting across the audience were pavement walkways, which acted as chalk boards for the kids games, in fact the whole set was scribbled with chalk slogans.

The piece requires a large cast, some 26 named roles plus chorus. The Opera Group used some ingenious doublings so that they were able to do the show with 16 adult singers, plus 2 boys. This was something of a community event in that local schools provided the troup of young children and the older youths, many of whom had small roles, and the Lewisham Choral Society provided an off stage chorus which stood in for the stage chorus in the crucial moments in Act 2. The children and youths were a complete delight, and the off-stage singers provided good support at the right moments.

Even without the doublings, Street Scene is an ensemble piece, though Weill is generous with his solo moments it is the ensemble which counts. The piece opens with the neighbours sitting on the steps lamenting the heat and gossiping. It finishes like this as well and the neighbours penchant for gossip (both good and ill natured) is very much the engine for the drama.

Elena Ferrari was thrilling as Anna Maurrant, the married woman whose affair leads to the tragedy where her husband Frank (Geof Dolton) shoots both Anna and her love Steve Sankey (Paul Featherstone). But it is part of Street Scene's genius that there are no heroes or villains; its creators allow us to see both sides. So that whilst Dolton's impressively threatening Frank was unlikeable, we could understand the reasons behind his actions. Ferrari was heartbreaking as a middle aged woman looking for a little tenderness in a grim world.

The action takes place agains the constant comins and goings in the tenament with Abraham Kaplan (Paul Featherstone), Lippo Fiorentino (Joseph Shovelton), Gret Fiorentino (Simone Sauphanor), Emma Jones (Charlotte Page), Carl Olsen (Paul Reeves), Olga Olsen (Harriet Williams) and Mrs Hildebrand (Joanna Foote) providing an entertaining, but poignantly dramatic backdrop. John Moabi was Henry Davis, the janitor, but also reappeared as Dick McGann, who had an impressively lively dance number with Mae Jones (Kate Nelson). Daniel Buchanan, the young man who spends most of the opera anticipating the birth of his first baby, was played by Nathan Vale, a tenor who I have only ever heard in Handel.

In parallel to the tragic love-triangle, was the relationship between Sam Kaplan (Paul Curievici) and Rose Maurrant (Susanna Hurrell), hesitantly developing via Weill's haunting setting of Walt Whitman's 'When Lilacs last in the door-yard bloomed. Hurrell was charming and perhaps slightly too cool, but she provided an apt foil for Curievici's deeply intense Sam. Occasionnally Curievici's voice hardened under pressure, but his was a finely taut performance which was ultimately heartbreaking.

Arthur Pita's choregraphy (revived by Yann Seabra), was delightfully inventive. Lacking a chorus or extra dancers, Pita used the cast to provide some well chosen movement evoking the work's Broadway origins.

Initially I thought that perhaps the BBC Concert Orchestra under Keith Lockhart were a little too loud and the cast seem to have trouble projecting both words and music, but things soon settled down and the orchestra provided a lively and at time sensitive accompaniment.

This was an evening which restored my faith in Weill's opera. Fulljames and his hard-working cast gave a rivetting performance which mixed tragedy and comedy in just the right proportions.

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