Page 12, 25th July 2008

25th July 2008
Page 12
Page 12, 25th July 2008 — An ode to New York that's empty at heart

Report an error

Noticed an error on this page?
If you've noticed an error in this article please click here to report it.


Locations: London, New York


Related articles

The Arts: Little Jam For A Lot Of Bread

Page 7 from 24th January 1964

The Renaissance Of Billy Childish M O Exp Ansio Nist

Page 10 from 9th May 2003

Mean Westminster And The Plight Of Africa's Refugees

Page 3 from 24th April 1981

Seeking More Than Just Sympathy

Page 8 from 18th February 1994

Defence Of The Irrational

Page 4 from 19th January 1940

An ode to New York that's empty at heart

Michael White

when creative artists become political refugees it's not uncommon for them to write. paint or compose the equivalent of a love letter to their adoptive country. In post-Blairite Britain it's probably a legislative requirement. And after Kurt Weill fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and settled in America he produced a number of scores with love-letter leanings: one of them a so-called "Broadway opera-. Street Scene, that wasn't the sunniest celebration of his new home but nonetheless affirmed the melting pot of immigrant cultures that had become the street life of New York.

Like most of Weill's work, Street Scene isn't music of the first rank. And not having seen a production since ENO's grandly conceived staging nearly 20 years ago (how time flies), I'd forgotten how creakily its dramaturgy works. But the touring production that arrived last week at London's Young Vic, done by the Wunderkind director John Fulljames with his own company, The Opera Group, made the most of its virtues and camouflaged the flaws. Which are many but interesting.

The problem with Street Scene is that it's a genre piece with too much genre and not enough action. It plays as though you'd left a camera running on the pavement: the musical equivalent of CCTV.

The life, collectively. is that of people in a run-down tenement house: having children, flirting, getting behind with the rent and getting themselves evicted. In the middle of this tapestry of detail is a narrative of marital breakdown and murder that, if it had more focus, would be enough to carry any sliceof-life verismo opera by Mascagni or Puccini. But it doesn't have that focus. When the murder happens it's just one more item in the day's events. And though that's as the authors planned, it makes lousy theatre.

By the time the interval arrives nothing of consequence has happened. The biggest ensemble numbers have been about soaring temperatures and eating ice cream. And apart from the slow-burn tensions of matrimonial misery, the dramatic contours are almost flat.

With material like this you can't do much: and working on a relatively small scale Fulljames hasn't had the chance to exercise his ingenuity. So the show is straightforward, played on a framework of stairs and walkways that represent the tenement. But for the wonderfully drab 1940s costumes and the emotional commitment of the performers it could almost count as semi-staged.

Andrew Slater (as the homicidal husband) and Elena Ferrari (as his wife) lead a strong cast that includes a striking performance by Ruby Hughes and a fantastic piece of juvenile ham from George Longworth as their teenage son Willie (done with a degree of camp that should concern his parents).

With a punchy offstage amateur chorus, some unusually coherent onstage children, and musing orchestral sound under conductor Patrick Bailey, it would be mean to call it anything but a good show. But at the heart of the piece itself is a vacuity that nothing can fill. When Frank the murdering husband gets caught, in a number where he sings "I loved her too" and the chorus respond "He loved her too", the whole thing disintegrates into Gilbert and Sullivan. Given that this is the dramatic climax of the score, it's contemptible. As is the closing Act Two reprise of the opening Act One ensemble a cyclic statement of life just rolling on that copies the opening/closing repetition of Peter Grimes (premiered a year before) but in a desultory way that sounds more lazy than meaningful.

When two contemporary artists use the same trick one successfully, the other limply it's a good indication of their relative stature. Britten was a great composer. Weill was not. The Proms opened last Friday with a programme that might have been an attempt to recreate the bits-and-pieces mess that Proms concerts usually were in the 19th century or, alternatively, it might just have been a bits-andpieces mess of its own accord. Hard to know. But the combination of Strauss. Mozart, Messiaen, Beethoven, Elliott Carter and Scriabin wasn't happy, even if it did signal several thematic strands corning up this season, like the Messiaen and Carter centenaries.

The best you could say is that the contrasts in scale were striking, with Richard Strauss's vast, noisy and bombastically bad Festliches Fraeludizan for organ and orchestra followed by the crystalline clarity of Mozart's C Major Oboe Concerto (beautifully played by Nicholas Daniel with his own witty cadenzas).

The highlight was the British premiere of a solo piano piece called Catenaires by Carter. Lasting four minutes, it was a paradigm example of complicated lucidity, brilliantly combining virtuoso busyness with sharply focused clarity of purpose. The performance, by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, was breathtaking. And so was the fact that it had been written just two years ago when the composer was 98. Whether that's down to monkey glands or cleanliving I don't know, but long may it continue.

blog comments powered by Disqus