In review: Street Scene
On Sunday afternoon I went to see VOICEBOX: Opera In Concert's production of Street Scene at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Kurt Weill's "American Opera", with text by Elmer Rice and Langston Hughes, is a fantastic piece, and I agreed with Artistic Director Guillermo Silva-Marin when he said that the show doesn't get done enough. I've had the personal fortune to work on two productions of Street Scene; and it's a beautifully written story about people we all understand, and about real life, which doesn't adhere to happy endings or perfect timing. Street Scene is one of those great ensemble pieces, with a large cast, each one vital in creating Weill's world, where the characters are equal parts unique people, and representative of different facets of human nature. The big cast also calls for lots of different kinds of singing (and I think it's a great show to put up at schools and summer programs), and it was a good choice for Opera In Concert, which does a great job of putting Canada's talent onstage.
I'll chat about some of my highlight performances from the show (you should click here for a full cast list). As Anna Maurrant, unhappily married and confined by her life, soprano Monica Whicher was really moving. She sang with an easy ring in her voice, making Anna sound like she still had some youth and idealism inside of her. Even in the Act II scene where she tries to stand up to her belligerent husband, there was still fragility and a bit of fear in her voice. We were easily sympathetic to Anna Maurrant, and Monica, always an expert in singing in English, she made it easy to capture the audience with her fantastic text.
As Anna's daughter, Rose Maurrant, Jennifer Taverner was beautiful. She had a lightness in her voice that sounded Rose's age, with enough richness to portray her as a wise young woman. She actually sounded similar to Monica, which worked beautifully to establish that Rose and Anna had thoughtfulness and loneliness in common. The role of Rose is deceptively big, but Jennifer made it sound easy. I also thought she was a strong actor, using both the dialogue and the music to help us understand her character.
Tenor Colin Ainsworth was perfect as Sam Kaplan, in my opinion one of the saddest characters in the opera repertoire. His "Lonely House" was a highlight for me, and Colin used that grainy, honest sound of his as well as a gorgeous falsetto moment at the end. After his Act I love(ish) duet with Rose, he ended the act with a wide, familiar smile that had us all on Sam's side. It made that awful line he says after his final duet with Rose even worse: "Oh Rose, this is the end of my world."
As the exhausting and unpredictable Frank Maurrant, Diego Català had a warm sound that felt more like a baritone than a bass. He sang well and his text was clear, but he lacked some of the danger that I want in the character. There were a few moments where Frank was "onstage" within the loose staging; I can't remember if the stage directions in the score call for him to be present for numbers like the "Ice Cream Sextet", but I felt the in-concert setting had Diego present, and engaged, in comic-relief scenes that weakened his role as a man to be feared.
I love Street Scene for all its small roles, of which you can find the full list here. Again, I'll go for the highlights: Leigh-Ann Allen and Michelle Garlough were fantastically catty as Mrs. Fiorentino and Mrs. Jones, two of my favourite bitches in opera. I thought Julia Henderson was adorable as the newly graduated Jennie Hildebrand, who has a her 15 minutes of fame in her graduation gown (despite her and her mother's looming foreclosure, darkness à-la-Weill). Of course, as Abraham Kaplan, the fab Gregory Finney showed us his character's entire biography in his few, philosophizing lines, including a convincing old-man-hobble.
Under the baton of Robert Cooper, the chorus and orchestra sounded great. For the chorus and the soloists, I could tell that the English text had been coached with diligence and the singers gave us admirably clear text. I thought that the dialects were off, though; so many of the wet T's and D's were welcome for clarity, but it took me out of the show's setting to have people speaking what would be closer to British English. Not everyone did it, like Greg Finney as Kaplan; his text was clear but natural, adding fuel to my long-standing theory that singing clear English isn't about spitting out every letter.
It's not an easy score, and I thought that Cooper and the orchestra handled the flexible music and all its stylistic homages: cabaret, jazz, blues, opera, and probably lots more. Shout out to the solo violin part at the beginning of "Lonely House"; it's one of those musical moments that will always sound better on the violin than at the piano. My only quibble was the electric keyboard given to pianist Narmina Afandiyeva; I know well the dilemma of portable keyboards over heavy/unavailable/expensive pianos (even an upright would have been great), but the keyboard sounds did take me out of the sonic world of Weill at a few moments.
Street Scene, while it's a stellar piece and a great opportunity for young talent, is tricky to really present in a concert setting. There were a few scenes, like the "Ice Cream Sextet", and Jennie's graduation, that made the scenes seem more disjunct than they actually are. But Street Scene is truly extraordinary show and a personal favourite of mine, so I was more than happy to see that it was playing in Toronto at all, be it in-concert. Too bad there was just the one show. Bravi, all!
Coming up at the St. Lawrence Centre: Toronto Operetta Theatre presents Earnest, The Importance of Being, April 29-May 3, starring Cameron McPhail and Charlotte Knight. And next up for VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert is Charpentier's Louise, starring Lesley Ann Bradley in the title role, March 29.