Street Scene is described in the Daily Telegraph’s preview as being a musical but Kurt Weill insisted it was an opera. This production at the Leeds Grand Theatre treated it as being the latter. It is my humble opinion that this was a mistake.
The work is based on Elmer Rice’s play of the same name about relationships in a shared house in 1940s New York where families from diverse immigrant and indigenous stock interact with each other. The whole piece follows the exploits of the Maurrant family whose roots are American. The father, Frank, is a working man who enjoys a trip to the bar after his day’s labours, his wife, Anna, feeling neglected is conducting an affair with Steve Sankey, the man who collects money for the milk company. They have a young son, Willie, who is still at school, and a daughter, Rose, who works in a real estate office. One of the other families, the Kaplans, comprises Abraham, the father, Shirley, his daughter and his son Sam. They are a left-leaning Jewish family from Eastern Europe, as was Kurt Weill himself, so a stark contrast to the right wing Maurrants. Friction is caused when Sam expresses his feelings for Rose and suggests that they run away together. Sam is a well educated young man who is training to be a lawyer and, although his proposition seems attractive, Rose declines on the grounds that they could not manage on the money they had. She has already been propositioned by her married boss who said that he could get her a part in a Broadway show and she saw this as an opportunity to earn enough money to escape on her own. She has also been warned off Sam by Shirley who reminded her that they are from different backgrounds and ‘oil and water don’t mix.’ The denouement of the piece occurs when Frank comes home early one day and catches Anna in flagrante delecto with Steve and shoots them both. There follows a police hunt and the arrest of Frank.
The attitudes of the time seem to have been watered down somewhat but there is still the odd racial term which would not be acceptable nowadays as well as the #metoo moment when Rose accepts what she must do in order to get her break on the stage. I would have liked to have gone into more detail here but sadly that is not possible because of the huge sound imbalance which meant that some of the spoken dialogue was drowned out totally by the orchestra and even a lot of the sung words were indiscernible. I feel that this is because, as I mentioned at the start, the work was treated as an opera rather than a musical and so the classical way in which the libretto was sung meant that the audience could not make out the words. I know I sound like my dad here when he used to say that he couldn’t understand a word on the records of my hero rock singers but this is not just my opinion as, when I was queuing for the bus home there were two ladies behind me complaining of the same thing. Sadly it was their first trip to the opera and I do hope that it doesn’t put them off for the future. I did feel compelled to tell them that they should possibly try a more classical Italian piece where there are electronic titles so that you can follow the dialogue. They wouldn’t have gone amiss here either. The problem with classically trained voices in musicals is that they are too technically pure and don’t have the same emotional range as ‘crooners’ who half sing and half speak their songs. Also New York slang does not readily lend itself to this art form, it is incongruous to have a hard working, hard drinking wife abuser singing street patois in a perfect baritone voice. Last year’s Trouble in Tahiti handled it much better.
OK, negative stuff over, the other aspects of the production were brilliant. It would not be possible to go through each of the performers individually as the cast was bigger than one on an elephant’s broken back leg but the scene stealers had to be the children who were spot-on in both their singing and dancing. It could be something to do with the sound again as the other brilliant number was the one involving the whole ensemble just before the end of Act One. In both cases they ganged up to defeat the orchestra.
The main characters of Rose Maurrant and Sam Kaplan were sung by Gilliene Butterfield and Alex Banfield respectively and displayed a chemistry which was just right for their relationship, she being a ‘popular’ girl in the neighbourhood and he being the introvert nerd. Anna Maurrant was sung by Giselle Allen who had a fabulous voice as did Byron Jackson as the janitor and was the only one whose words I managed to grasp in their entirety. Robert Hayward as Frank Maurrant had a great stage presence and encapsulated the character of a bruiser although I did feel that his New York accent slipped a little from time to time.
The set was superb, being a giant flight of stairs in the middle of the stage linking the balconies where the families’ rooms were situated. They also acted as a performance space for some of the action and the songs. It was designed by Francis O’Connor who was also responsible for the costumes. Although 1947 is a couple of years before my time, I have seen enough films of the era to know that they seemed very accurate.
The lighting designer, Howard Hudson is also to be congratulated for adopting a ‘less is more’ approach to great effect. There were a couple of spotlights trained across the front of the stage which gave a horror movie quality after the shooting but the rest of the illumination seemed to be provided by lights suspended from above which raised and lowered according to the action. In particular they followed the actors up the stairs at the beginning leading their way to the upper floors and doing the same to the eyes of the audience. There was also a street lamp which would be lowered to the front right of the stage indicating that the action was taking place on the pavement outside. Brilliant.
Choreography and movement were skilfully handled by Gary Clarke and must have been a nightmare considering how many people there were to regiment. Another triumph.
Although I have issues with the sound balance the orchestra was its usual superb self, on this occasion conducted by James Holmes.
Director Matthew Eberhardt gets a seven out of ten which under other circumstances would have been a perfect score.
I know that I have gone on a bit about the sound but it would be a tragedy if the two ladies in the bus queue never go back to the opera, which let’s face it is not a cheap night out, because the organisation which has almost single-handedly built up a massive following for the art form in the North of England, let them down. I do hope that they get the problem sorted out for the next performance on Saturday 25th January, and that the same fate does not befall The Marriage of Figaro which premieres on 1st February, as I have just noticed that that is also sung in English.
Street Scene will be performed at Leeds Grand Theatre on Saturday 25th January, Wednesday 12th February, Thursday 20th February and Friday 28th February. It then goes on tour to Newcastle, Salford and Nottingham. For more details and booking information please refer to:
Feature Photograph Supplied by Opera North