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Opera North’s ‘Street Scene’ Is Magnificent

After hearing Kurt Weill’s epic Street Scene , which is being given a remarkable production by Opera North at the Lebanon Opera House, I’m staggered that it hasn’t been revived on Broadway since it opened in 1946, and that it isn’t as well known by the general public as it should be.

Any music lover should hear this magnificent, endlessly inventive score, for which Weill won a Tony Award in 1947. Although it’s on a rank with Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess , it’s my guess that many in the audience, like me, are encountering it for the first time, although it has been resurrected occasionally at opera houses in the U.S. It was a bold choice, and Opera North deserves plaudits for bringing it to Upper Valley audiences.

Under the stage and choreographic direction of Mark Astafan and the musical direction of conductor Louis Burkot, the orchestra and Opera North’s Young Artists give Street Scene a vivid, deeply felt staging. Of the three operas in this season’s repertoire, which takes its theme from the cities of London ( My Fair Lady ), Paris ( La Traviata ) and New York ( Street Scene ), it’s Weill’s score that most embodies the vital, nervous pulse of a great metropolis. The city is as much a character as any of the performers.

Everything in this Opera North production speaks to the admiration and affection that Astafan and Burkot clearly feel for Weill’s work, which was based on the eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Elmer Rice, and has a book by Rice and lyrics by the poet Langston Hughes.

Rice was an American leftist whose work, in the vein of Social Realism, focused on the ills of capitalism and the lives of working people. Street Scene , which made its debut as a play in 1929, documents what happens in a tenement building over the course of a sweltering summer day. It premiered before the Stock Market Crash in October, 1929, but was prescient in its treatment of the have-nots versus the haves. The tenement is like a hive, from which the residents come and go, and like any hive , it has a particular structure and hierarchy. But what happens when the order is disrupted?

In roughly 2 1 /2 hours of music, Weill, Hughes and Rice conveyed the symphonic textures and patterns of city living, which is crammed, moment to moment, with dramatic and comical incident. There is the charm of young love, the complex, unpredictable pull of sexual attraction, the drama of child birth, the gossip of neighbors, the frustrations of working for a living, the dreams of money and fame, the inequities and aspirations of modern capitalism.

At the center of the drama is Anna Maurrant, an unhappily married woman with two children. Her husband Frank Maurrant is an abusive alcoholic. Their daughter Rose, in her late teens or early 20s, desperately wants to free herself from the bitter constraints of their family life; their son Willie is a mischievous young boy, or what used to be called, in street parlance, an urchin.

Sam Kaplan, a shy, bookish young man in the building, is in love with Rose, and together they dream of escaping tenement life, and their narrow lives. Anna Maurrant, who experiences no tenderness from her husband, is infatuated with a milk bottle collector named Steve Sankey, and as the relationship between them intensifies, Frank Maurrant becomes more suspicious and violent.

Born in 1900 in Germany, Weill, who wrote scores of works in numerous genres, is still best known, at least in this country, for The Three Penny Opera , which he wrote with Bertolt Brecht, and which was first produced in Berlin in 1928. He emigrated from Nazi Germany to the U.S. in 1933, both because he was Jewish and, as an avant-garde composer, he was considered, as were all artists of his leftist, anti-Nazi convictions, a menace to the regime.

Street Scene shows what can happen when you take a European like Weill, who’d grown up in a culture listening to the later works of Gustav Mahler, and the atonal modernism of Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg, and plunge him into the American vernacular. But is it an opera, a musical, a tone poem or what Weill called a songspiel , a song play?

The Kurt Weill Foundation, which was organized by Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, calls Street Scene both an opera and a musical, but in the end the categorizing seems, not irrelevant, but perhaps inadequate to describing what Weill achieved. He scooped up numerous musical genres, filtered them through his own distinctive composition style, and made of them a cohesive, dramatic, singing whole that seems as instinctively, in-the-bone American as anything by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Duke Ellington or Leadbelly. If Walt Whitman were set to music (and Weill quotes in Street Scene from Whitman’s poem When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom’d, this is what it might sound like.

Weill’s music has the sophisticated, subtle coloration and formal experimentation of the early 20th century European composers but the warmth, brightness and melodiousness of the best American musical theater, along with the insinuating, propulsive rhythms and syncopation of the blues and jazz. It’s exuberant and riotous one minute (the songs Ice Cream Sextet and Moon Faced, Starry Eyed ) and tender and wistfulthe next (the songs Remember That I Care and Lonely House ) . Weill even worked in the sing-song of children’s nursery rhymes.

It wouldn’t be surprising to hear that Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim were influenced by Street Scene because it seems such a clear antecedent to West Side Story . Why Street Scene isn’t as well known is a mystery because the music is so evocative and stirring. But perhaps Weill’s seamless integration of story and s ongs made it more difficult to pluck out an obvious hit, something you’d hum leaving the theater or hear on the radio. And Weill’s music isn’t easily boiled down to catchy musical phrases.

The singers in the Opera North Young Artists program acquit themselves beautifully here. Although Street Scene is first and foremost, an ensemble piece, special notice should be made of Audra Jo Casebier as Anna Maurrant, who pours her heart into the song (or aria) S omehow I Never Could Believe , in which Anna bemoans the turn her life has taken, and cries out for a husband capable of showing her the kind of love she deserves. As Rose, Hanna Brammer has a lilting soprano and winsome, but not too sweet, stage presence.

Lee Steiner is affecting as the earnest Sam Kaplan. Emily Geller, as the loquacious, nosy neighbor Emma Jones, comes dangerously close to stealing the show with her effortless comic delivery. Trevor Neal, who plays the building superintendent Henry, projects a warm baritone in the bluesy I Got a Marble and A Star . Rachel Zatcoff and Nathan Jentink burn up the stage in the jitterbug number M oon-Faced, Starry-Eyed .

I should also mention the set by Karen Koslowski, a tenement with numerous windows, shades up and down, through which you can see the action going on inside; Astafan makes ingenious use of it.

The orchestra, under the baton of Louis Burkot, is particularly fine in this production. Burkot elicits from the musicians the subtlest shadings of the score, the way dark bubbles up from light, and jazz segues into blues that segues into Stephen Foster-like ballad, and back to show tune. It’s a rich, fully realized performance that more than does justice to an unduly neglected masterpiece.

Street Scene continues tonight at 7:30 and Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets and information call the Lebanon Opera House Box Office at 603-448-0400 or go to operanorth.org.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.