Théâtre du Châtelet
An American work in Paris: Weill's Street Scene at Théâtre du Châtelet
© Keith Pattison 2013
The Châtelet confirmed its position as the Parisian home of American music-theater with a staging of Kurt Weill's Street Scene (seen Jan. 26), which will be followed later in the season by Carousel, Sunday in the Park with George and I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky. This production of Street Scene started life at the Watford Palace Theatre, London, in 2008 before moving on to the Young Vic. Originally staged by John Fulljames, it was rehearsed for Paris by Lucy Bradley, with Tim Murray conducting the Orchestre Pasdeloup.
Weill did not consider Street Scene, based on Elmer Rice's 1929 Broadway hit, to be an opera, but rather a dramatic musical comedy. The musical Street Scene, which had its premiere at Broadway's Adelphi Theater in 1947, nonetheless fulfilled Weill's dream of creating a new form of American opera, with spoken dialogue forming "as much part of the general musical structure as the dramatic action." The score freely mixes jazz, Broadway musicals and more operatic Puccini-cum-Menotti-like material, while the skillful transition between spoken dialogue and singing looks forward to Sondheim and Bernstein. Act I, presenting the lives of the tenement residents, is too long at ninety minutes, and the stifling summer day on the Lower East Side failed to come to life on a bitingly cold Paris evening. Dick Bird's fixed split-level set surrounded the onstage orchestra, placing conductor Murray somewhat incongruously at centerstage for the entire evening. Fortunately, Act II, with its murderous denouement, gathered dramatic pace. The work depends on rapid switches from moments such as the Broadway-style dance number "Moon-faced, starry-eyed," brilliantly choreographed by Arthur Pita and expertly performed by Kate Nelson and Ashley Campbell, to more densely operatic moments such as Frank Maurrant's murderous attack on his unfaithful wife. It is not an easy journey for the audience, and the hybrid nature of the evening fails to match the coruscating message of the composer's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and The Threepenny Opera.
Old Abraham Kaplan's spoken tirade against violent role models and a lack of socialist morality showed that the composer and his librettists, Langston Hughes and Elmer Rice, still had some Brechtian fire in their bellies, but the production needed more grit and violence to capture the desperation of tenement life. Realism was not helped by a hard-working British cast indulging in a festival of unsuccessful character accents. Musically, the balance between singers and orchestra was poor, with clumsy amplification to blame. It was difficult to identify where sound was coming from, and the stronger operatic singers suffered from saturated amplification, while the Pasdeloup Orchestra sounded oddly muted under Murray's stylish direction. Surely there was a case here for amplifying the dialogue but not the singing — a common enough practice in contemporary productions of Bizet's Carmen, an opera that Weill compared in form to Street Scene.
As far as one could judge through the muddy sound system, soprano Sarah Redgwick possessed some force for Anna Maurrant's quasi-verismo outpourings. Susanna Hurrell brought a strong sense of character and a bright soprano to daughter Rose Maurrant, and tenor Paul Curievici was a sympathetic, clear-voiced Sam Kaplan. Geof Dolton's bass-baritone captured something of the bigoted violence of Frank Maurrant. However, for the sort of full-on Broadway projection that might have galvanized the evening had it been more widespread, one had to look to Pablo Cano Carciofa as the young Willie Maurrant — a child star of show-stealing impudence.
STEPHEN J. MUDGE
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