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BLITZSTEIN: The Cradle Will Rock

CD Button Costa-Jackson, Spinner; Jameson, Boehler, Burchett, Hopkins; Opera Saratoga Orchestra, Mauceri. Text. Bridge 9511 A/B

Recordings Blitzstein Cover 1118

MARC BLITZSTEIN'S Cradle Will Rock had a tortured opening that made it musical-theater legend. The saga was even made into a 1999 film, Cradle Will Rock,directed by Tim Robbins. Blitzstein, the Philadelphia-born son of Russian–Jewish immigrants, studied composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Arnold Schoenberg in Berlin. Back in the U.S. at the height of the Depression, in 1936, he was appalled by what he saw and inspired to create book, lyrics and music for an evening-length piece of Brechtian agitprop. The result attacked the greed, hypocrisy and working-class oppression flourishing at that time. Cradle was embraced by producer John Houseman and director Orson Welles, working together in New York for the Federal Theater Project, and they agreed to stage it. On opening night, however, cast, crew and theatergoers arrived to find themselves shut out at the urging of Congress’s more conservative members. Undaunted, the crowd marched uptown to a vacant theater, where the entire show was staged from the seats, aisles and boxes due to union rules that made the stage off-limits. The evening was a triumph of artistic persistence and became legendary in theater history. The show had a decent run in New York but never became a hit; revivals have been sporadic. 

Opera Saratoga presented it last year in a full staging with Blitzstein’s original orchestration, and musical-theater
buffs owe the company thanks for providing the chance to hear the work as it was meant to be heard. But Cradle is very much a work of theater and doesn’t translate well to disc. Judging from the booklet photos, Opera Saratoga gave The Cradle Will Rock a striking production. And Blitzstein’s angry, heartfelt score, lashed with the influences of Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, speaks strongly—if not subtly—of its time. Despite a few memorable tunes and moments, however, people won’t want to listen over and over to this recording. Its concerns remain more vital than ever in the Age of Trump, and the show commands admiration and respect, but it has never engendered much love—and likely never will.

Blitzstein called for a great deal of Sprechtstimme here, and it’s not delivered with much ease or comfort by Opera Saratoga’s cast, many of whom are members of its Young Artists Program. It’s telling, in fact, that the most effective performances on this disc come from the seasoned pros. Justin Hopkins is a rich-voiced Reverend Salvation, Keith Jameson a poignant Harry Druggist. Ginger Costa-Jackson appropriately eschews classical vocal production as the Moll, a prostitute, and belts out her numbers in a world-weary chest voice. Christopher Burchett is believable as the hero, the rabble-rouser Larry, who doesn’t make his entrance until the second half. Most impressive is Nina Spinner, who, as Ella, unleashes an angry contralto that shakes the walls. Throughout, John Mauceri conducts the Opera Saratoga Orchestra with a firm sense of period style.

The disc’s final fourteen minutes are devoted to Blitzstein, discussing in detail the opening night—a moving historical document, and a sad souvenir of his too-short life. —Eric Myers



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