`Street Scene' deserves full house

MUSIC

Wolf Trap produces show that opened on Broadway in '47

August 20, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Folks should try to find a way to get along together," sings the suffering housewife Anna Maurrant in Kurt Weill's Street Scene, "a way to make the world a friendly, happy place full of laughter and kind words."

That sentiment must have sounded awfully naive when the show opened on Broadway in 1947, so soon after the world had demonstrated exactly how unfriendly a place it could be. The lines seem just as naive now, of course, but that doesn't make them any less valid. And when they were sung Saturday night in the Wolf Trap Opera Company's involving production in Vienna, Va., they hit home.

Trying to get along is the most persistent of the underlying themes in Street Scene, Weill's determined attempt at fusing opera and musical theater. With a book by Elmer Rice, based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and lyrics by Langston Hughes, this slice-of-New-York-life - complete with all the expected ethnic stereotypes - is bathed in earnestness. But there's enough grit in the mix to keep the show out of the cloying category.

If there are weaknesses in the structure and a shortage of genuine pathos at the end, there are remarkable strengths in the piece as well. Not the least of those is the score, which mirrors the patchwork of human lives in the story with diverse musical styles that somehow achieve cohesion (and always sound unmistakably like Weill).

Street Scene, which the composer considered his masterpiece, owes something to Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Both works focus on the poor, the down-to-earth, the ones who never get to live happily ever after. Both tell their stories through sophisticated music that simultaneously transcends and incorporates Broadway conventions, achieving true operatic weight.

In recent years, Street Scene has begun to earn its rightful respect, but it remains a tough sell. Wolf Trap Opera, a showcase for emerging artists, can claim extra credit for selecting it as this year's production in the large Filene Center; a standard, sure-fire box office item is the usual choice there. (The company's other, often offbeat offerings, such as a hot and spicy version of Handel's Serse last month, are presented in the cozy Barns of Wolf Trap nearby.)

Not surprisingly, attendance was modest for the weekend's two performances. The effort deserved a full house.

Adrianne Lobel's sets, from the Minnesota Opera, re-created a run-down New York street with terrific accuracy and atmosphere. Garnett Bruce's direction had a cinematic flow and, with few exceptions, rang true all night. Nature provided an extra bit of realism - when the neighbors onstage sang "Ain't It Awful, the Heat," the Wolf Trap audience could empathize all too easily.

Those and other references to the stifling conditions would probably have gotten a bigger reaction had they been easier to hear through the spotty amplification. About half of the words in the show never could be deciphered, a serious, lamentable drawback, especially for all those having their first encounter with Street Scene.

Still, the work's essence was communicated, thanks to the cohesive singing and acting.

Carolyn Betty sang Anna Maurrant's music in plush, fruity tones; the "Somehow I Never Could Believe" aria, with its deliberate echoes of Puccini and Wagner, was delivered with particular intensity. Patrick Marques, as Sam, revealed a bright tenor voice that bloomed nicely in duets with soprano Angela Fout. Her warm, naturally inflected singing revealed Rose's basic goodness.

Oren Gradus brought a firm, colorful bass to the role of Frank Maurrant, whose anger gives the work its flash point. (Funny how this character's litany of complaints - "new-fangled ideas going round, free love, divorce and birth control, young girls smoking cigarettes ..." - still has a contemporary ring.)

Alan T. Reed sang "I Got a Marble and a Star," Weill's most obvious debt to Porgy, in a ripe, sensitive voice. Anne Hawthorne and Stephen Gregory Smith jitter-bugged up a storm in "Moon-faced, Starry Eyed." Adriana Zabala couldn't have been more convincing as the neighborhood snoop and cynic. Linda Kirk and Jennifer Blades made the most of the Nursemaids' doubled-edge lullaby.

The list of admirable cast members could go on much longer.

Richard Bado conducted lovingly and drew downright elegant playing from the orchestra, which sounded thoroughly connected to the rich textures and nuances of the score.

The production reaffirmed Weill's stature among composers for the American stage and the distinctive, evocative power of Street Scene.

Familiar turn of events

It's deja vu all over again at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Last September, violinist Pamela Frank was booked to perform with the ensemble in town and on its European tour. A hand injury forced her to bow out of both gigs. She was re-engaged for concerts at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall this September and the BSO's subsequent tour.

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