By John Shulson

Kurt Weill’s Tony Award-winning (1947) opera “Street Scene” is set in an east side Manhattan tenement over 24 hours during a hot, summery 1938. It’s a street populated with folk from ethnic everywhere. It’s a street populated with accents, politics, bigotry, discrimination, domestic abuse, anti immigration, gun violence, jealousy, desire and death. Sound familiar?

To be sure, many of the themes resonate in today’s political-media world, all the more poignant in that the play upon which the opera is based won the Pulitzer Prize for Elmer Rice back in 1929. Maybe not that much changes. At any rate, Weill’s musical setting of it, with Langston Hughes’s poetic lyrics, offers a bit of everything, representative of everyone.

Musically, there’s a blend of opera, jazz, blues and Broadway and, rightly so, singers who embrace those different styles. There’s even some dazzling swing dance and dialogue both snappy and probing. In short, it fulfills Weill’s desire to merge all elements of stage and musical craft into what he considered a new form — his “American Opera,” a calculated combination of elements that seeks to please all.

As odd a combination as “Street” offers, there’s something quite natural about it as the story unfolds.

It‘s a bold break from the norm heard on an opera series which makes this first-time production by the Virginia Opera Association all the more notable, as heard in Richmond’s Carpenter Theatre Sunday. That the Opera Association seeks to offer a new work each season is laudable and provides an on-going educational listening experience that broadens awareness and appreciation. That Sunday’s performance had a number of empty seats was unfortunate in that this was a production that, in many ways, was one of the company’s most major undertakings.

The large cast of 60 was drawn from singers with acclaim in worldwide opera houses, members of the VOA chorus and children’s chorus from the Governor’s School for the Arts, and supernumeraries and actors. That’s a handful to handle, and the handling was brilliantly done by internationally celebrated director Dorothy Danner (yes, related to Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow).

She moved the cast about David Harwell’s extraordinary set with ease and purpose, helping bring shape and substance to “Street’s” diverse residents and the developing tension leading to tragedy.

Act I basically introduces everyone and hints at bad things to come romantically and Act II delivers those bad things. While there are story lines and lyrics that are upbeat, such as the joys of ice cream, pending fatherhood, and childhood play, the primary ones focus on Anna, the emotionally abused wife of drinking thug Frank, and their daughter Rose, who desires a life and love away from the tenement. Anna wants someone to care for her, “…a hand to touch that’s warm and kind,” which hand is supplied by Sankey, the milk company collector.

Frank stumbles on the two and kills them. Meanwhile, law student Sam loves Rose and wants to take her away. Despite her feelings for Sam, after the murders, Rose does go away, because, “…you have to face some things alone.”

The singing throughout was spot on, from adults on down, each style solidly delivered with purpose and projection, highlights being Jill Gardner (Anna), Zachary James (Frank), Maureen McKay (Rose), David Blalock (Sam), Trevor Neal (maintenance man), dynamite dancers David Bevis and Ahnastasia Albert and super talented youngsters.

The music has reference points of Puccini, Menotti, Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Duke Ellington, among many others. It’s effective and quite successfully matches the evolving emotions taking place on stage. Conductor Adam Turner and members of the Virginia Symphony provided top-notch support that was musically and dramatically centered and responsive to the pulse of this notable and excellently crafted “Street Scene.”

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has covered the arts for more than 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman’s “Murder at the Opera.”

 

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