After opening at Broadway’s Adelphi Theatre in January of 1947, Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, his venture toward an “American opera,” went on to win the first-ever Tony Award for a Composer (now Best Original Score), beating out notable original productions of Finian’s Rainbow and Brigadoon. Yet Street Scene ran for only 148 performances—unsuccessful by Broadway standards—closing because of “production difficulties.” With a cast of more than 50, many of whom must possess operatic-quality voices, it doesn’t take a lot to imagine what those “difficulties” could have been. In addition, critics at the time noted that the work was too long, as well as stylistically muddled, if not derivative. They wondered, too, how the biting cynicism of his European work with Bertolt Brecht could give way to “sappy” Broadway-style ballads and dance numbers. Nonetheless, Weill’s music is most assuredly still appreciated for the descriptive textures and haunting melodies that engage the audience. Although Street Scene has never been revived on Broadway, it has become an item for opera companies around the country. Added to that list will now be last weekend’s excellent production from the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre at the Bijou.
Two happy events coincided to solve one particular production hurdle for this UT Opera production. A special grant from the Kurt Weill Foundation of Music allowed the program to purchase a marvelous Street Scene set from Des Moines Metro Opera, which was anxious to clear room in its warehouse for new productions. Designed by R. Keith Brumley, the set was a theatrically realistic version of the exterior of a typical walk-up brownstone in New York. With an attractive and functional infrastructure to work with, director Carroll Freeman built a marvelously entertaining and brilliantly detailed portrayal—full of non-stop motion and energy—of a scruffy locale full of building tenants, neighbors, visitors, and passers-by. In other words, a slice of urban life.
Set on a sweltering summer day, the plot revolves around one of the building’s families, the Maurrants, and specifically around the mother, Anna, and her daughter, Rose. Anna seeks relief from her marriage to a brutish stagehand, Frank. For Rose, she must come to grips with the reality that to escape her environment means leaving a relationship with her neighbor, Sam Kaplan. The other tenants make up a colorful melting pot of immigrant America, full of the expected bigotries, hypocrisies, and frustrations.
I must mention the one unfortunate problem with this production—the difficulty of the singers to consistently project over the orchestra. Unfortunately, a lot of dialogue and lyrics were lost in both performances I viewed. While the Bijou is an acoustic gem, this unfortunately favored the pit players in James Fellenbaum’s fine UT Opera Orchestra to the detriment of the student singers. For this reason, the Bijou’s orchestra pit, which seems to really project the instrumental sound outward, may need some form of acoustic muting for opera productions, since it would probably be difficult, if not unrealistic, to achieve lower volume without losing orchestral detail.
On the other hand, a few of the performers—Andrew Gilchrist as the alcoholic tenant George Jones and Stefan Barner as Lippo Fiorentino—proved that they possessed true stage voices, that ability (or training) that enables them to project in a theater no matter the obstacles.
Despite the issues of voice projection, the otherwise consistently strong split casts were lead by Teresa Alzadon and Mieke Rickert as Anna Maurrant; Paige Patrick and Jessica Cates as Rose Maurrant; John Arnold as the menacing Frank Maurrant; and Jonathan Murphy and Jonathon Subìa as the bookish neighbor, Sam Kaplan. Both Murphy and Subìa gave their aria “Lonely Home” a beautiful poignancy. Among the large-cast standouts were Valerie Haber as Jennie Hildebrand; Leah Serr as the ill-spirited Emma Jones; Whitney Hansen and Samantha Strader as the delightfully promiscuous Mae Jones; James McGuire as Mae’s persistent admirer, Dick McGann; and the performances of Sarah Hoeppner and Robyn VanLeigh as two scandal-curious Nursemaids in their comic relief “Lullaby.” Of note, too, was Rose’s ballad “What Good Would the Moon Be?” sung by Patrick and Cates. The ensemble numbers were all uniformly solid, especially the energized “Ice Cream Sextet.”
What has become obvious is that the opera and vocal performance sections of the UT Music Department have stepped into the spotlight of notable performance programs around the country. How else could one explain the plentiful array of young singers obviously on the verge of fine careers?