First performed in Philadelphia in 1946 before a Broadway transfer the following year, Street Scene, now given a fine new production by Opera North, is in some respects the most ambitious and arguably the finest work of Kurt Weill’s American period. With lyrics by Langston Hughes and a book by Elmer Rice, based on his own 1929 play, it depicts 24 hours in the lives of a largely immigrant community in a tenement block in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which in turn throws into relief the central narrative of Frank Maurrant’s murder of his unfaithful wife, Anna, and the impact of the tragedy on their daughter, Rose, and her shy Jewish boyfriend Sam Kaplan.
Like many of Weill’s later works, it’s in many ways unclassifiable and at times uneven. Weill himself described it as “an American opera”, but it hovers in territory uniquely its own, somewhere between opera and musical. Big arias such Anna’s passionate Somehow I Never Could Believe are juxtaposed with Broadway numbers like the breezy Wrapped in a Ribbon and Tied in a Bow, and jazz collides with Rossini in the ensembles in which Anna’s neighbours gossip about her adultery. At times, however, you can’t help but feel it overreaches itself. With more than 30 roles, the cast is large by any standards. Some of the characters aren’t developed as much as one would wish, and the narrative focus can become blurred.
Opera North have done it proud, though. This is very much a company show: all the roles are taken either by members of the chorus or regular guest artists, and there’s not a weak link anywhere. Gillene Butterfield and Alex Banfield are touching as, respectively, Rose and Sam. He sings Lonely House with wonderful depth of feeling; she sounds lovely in What Good Would the Moon Be?; and the tender fragility of their relationship is superbly captured. Giselle Allen, meanwhile, has real dramatic fire as Anna, while Robert Hayward’s Frank is a complex and often remarkably empathetic portrait of a man disastrously ill at ease with his own emotions.
Elsewhere, there are some superbly observed character portraits, among them Quirijn de Lang as Rose’s dangerously seductive boss, Harry Easter, and Dean Robinson as Sam’s father, Abraham, the leftwing intellectual, inveighing against social inequality and longing for revolution. Weill provides his Italian immigrant Lippo Fiorentino with a big number about ice-cream, which Christopher Turner sings with great panache. James Holmes conducts with impeccable style, and you would be hard pressed to hear the piece better played.
Matthew Eberhardt’s striking production, meanwhile, locates the work firmly in the time of its premiere, but avoids the naturalistic approach favoured by some directors. The staircases and platforms of Francis O’Connor’s set suggest the outline of the tenement block while allowing us to see the comings and goings within, and the central hallway light rises to become the moon as Rose and Sam dream of a better life elsewhere. Fiorentino has become a second world war veteran and local hero. With sinister irony, the Maurrants’ young son, Willie, continuously plays with a toy gun – a dreadful intimation of his father’s eventual murder of his mother. It all makes for fine, engaging music theatre, beautifully done.