“Let things be like they always was. That’s good enough for me. Let things again be safe and sound. . . . Look at all these newfangled ideas going round: free love, divorce, and birth control. . . . In the old days they didn’t carry on that way.”
The rhetoric sounds fresh in today’s America, but the lines are from 1946, and they were written by an African American. Kurt Weill’s “Street Scene,” with lyrics by Langston Hughes and book by Elmer Rice, came to Fairfax this weekend with the Virginia Opera. It served as another example, along with the 1946 play “Born Yesterday” now at Ford’s Theatre, that even the most dated works from the middle of the last century point out American patterns we haven’t yet managed to break.
“Street Scene,” with its Broadway tunes and production numbers interspersed with arias, aspired to move toward a new form of American opera. It’s certainly as extensive a collection of stereotypes about America and Americans as you could hope to find onstage. It plays out in front of a Brooklyn tenement (the realistic set by David Harwell, taken from a Center City Opera production, was exceptionally evocative), with a veritable stamp album of immigrants: the Swedes, the Italians (who lead an exuberant paean to ice cream), the black janitor (resonantly sung by Trevor Neal), the Jewish socialist intellectual and the American workingman, Frank Maurrant, quoted above, who, despite living at bare subsistence levels, doesn’t want anything to change (and blames his problems on “lousy foreigners”).
This evidence of how deeply Maurrant’s particular brand of American conservatism has been baked into our modern age is noteworthy, but not enough to smooth over the problems of an opera that, despite its ardent musical numbers, feels like a collection of paper dolls trying to come to life (with atrocious fake accents, to boot). It doesn’t withhold its judgments. Frank Maurrant’s wife, Anna (played by Jill Gardner), sings about her long-held dreams that life could be more than “dull and gray.” She’s having an affair with the milkman, which the whole building is talking about, and Frank (the rugged Zachary James) finds them and kills them, leaving their two children destitute. Frank, in short, is bad, but he’s also a victim of his circumstances and his bigotry. And yet the piece, with unintentional irony, embodies a glorification of the “good old days,” a world viewed with fond nostalgia, even though its characters are desperately trying to escape it.
Virginia Opera did as much with this as is possible to do, with the director, Dorothy Danner, guiding a strong young cast, including a great group of children (among them, Maxson Taxter as Willie Maurrant). Gardner’s Anna beautifully incorporated the fading sweetness of the worn mother looking for something bright in the world. Ahnastasia Albert and David Michael Bevis brought delightful dancing to the old-style showpiece “Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed,” playing two infatuated young adults returning home from a date. Talin Nalbandian, a member of the company’s young-artist program, sang with true beauty in the bit part of one of the nursemaids who comes by to rubberneck after the murder. And Maureen McKay was appropriately spunky and vivid as Rose Maurrant, Frank and Anna’s oldest child. Rose is adored by Sam Kaplan, the building’s brainiac law student, sung firmly by David Blalock, but in the end, after her mother’s death, she goes off without him.
The energetic conductor was Adam Turner, the company’s new artistic director. If he couldn’t quite bridge the divide between Broadway show and opera that creates palpable rifts in the fabric of this score, he did contribute to the verve of a performance that managed to give some punch to a piece that sorely needs it, however sadly enduring its stereotypes.
Street Scene will play at the Carpenter Theatre in Richmond on Oct. 12 and 14. vaopera.org.