At one climactic point in Act 2, the entire cast was perched at all heights on the stage, like singing birds in a huge aviary. It was a thrilling, enthusiastically applauded moment in this ensemble work which matches well with the long-established strengths of the Opera North Chorus. Its members were stretched rewardingly into taking on a substantial number of individual characterisations and into working on more or less equal terms with the principals. Street Scene is a landmark work which celebrates the social diversity of 1940s New York as found in a brownstone tenement, with roots in a play of the same name by Elmer Rice. Kurt Weill was convinced that his “Broadway opera” was his masterpiece. Although flawed, it conveys the sleepless vitality of the city in an innovative blend of the type of opera which the composer had known back in Germany before he made his life-saving exit in 1933 to escape the Nazis, with the popular music of his new country. Arias, blues, jazz and spirituals co-exist sometimes awkwardly, mostly happily, in a Golden Age Broadway musical with extra ingredients, which became a jumping-off point for Bernstein and Sondheim.

The Chorus of Opera North and Company of <i>Street Scene</i> © Clive Barda
The Chorus of Opera North and Company of Street Scene
© Clive Barda

It features the lives of six families over a period of 24 hours. They spill out of their apartments up and down the stairs which dominate a spare and spindly, vertiginous set (designer Francis O’Connor) to swelter in summer heat, gossip, fool around, dance, clash and to sing about love. A baby is born, there is a funeral, and a violent death. The various stories are conveyed sketchily, with the exception of that of the Maurrant family, in which the father, Frank, is a brutish heavy drinker and his wife Anna is driven to misery and into the arms of a secret lover. Rose, their pretty daughter, attracts the attention of her employer and, more significantly, of the bookish aspiring attorney, Sam Kaplan, an intellectual with a heart.

Robert Hayward (Frank Maurrant) © Clive Barda
Robert Hayward (Frank Maurrant)
© Clive Barda

Bass-baritone Robert Hayward as Frank Maurrant was a terrific frustrated domestic tyrant, his voice oozing with powerful emotions, particularly after his arrest for shooting his wife dead. His crudely reactionary world-view contrasts with that of downstairs neighbour, the kippah-wearing Abraham Kaplan (bass Dean Robinson) who not only tries to reason with him on his child-rearing methods but progresses to a rant on the evils of modern capitalism, in one of the opera’s brief cameos. Soprano Giselle Allen as Anna Maurrant is an Opera North veteran who displayed her dramatic skill and versatility yet again. Memorable for a feisty Tosca in 2018, here she is full of motherly warmth and marital despair. Her “A Boy Like You”, addressed to her young son Willie (Louis Parker) was beautifully moving. A long-standing Chorus member, soprano Gillene Butterfield, was superb as Rose Maurrant, a part with a little more substance than most of the others. Originally prescribed as “a precocious teenager” she was played more as a thoughtful victim in modern eyes, of her circumstances and of her slightly sinister employer (Quirijn de Lang), and as the light in the life of the devoted Sam. Her cavatina in Act 1 about genuine love “What Good Would the Moon Be?” was a high point. Tenor Alex Banfield was her earnest suitor, fated not to succeed. His “Lonely House” in Act 1 was sung with great verve and intensity.

Louis Parker (Willie), Giselle Allen (Anna), Robert Hayward (Frank) and Claire Pascoe (Emma Jones) © Clive Barda
Louis Parker (Willie), Giselle Allen (Anna), Robert Hayward (Frank) and Claire Pascoe (Emma Jones)
© Clive Barda

Other high points were a stunning dance routine from Rodney Vubya and Michelle Andrews (as Dick McGann and Mae Jones), a delightful performance by tenor Christopher Turner as Lippo Fiorentino, a stereotypically operatic Italian, in the Ice Cream Sextet in Act 1 and the contribution of Opera North’s spectacularly talented cohort of semi-anarchic children (Youth Chorus Master Nicholas Shaw), who brought much excitement to the beginning of Act 2 with “Catch Me If You Can”.

Rodney Vubya (Dick McGann) and Michelle Andrews (Mae Jones) © Clive Barda
Rodney Vubya (Dick McGann) and Michelle Andrews (Mae Jones)
© Clive Barda

Director Matthew Eberhardt manipulated the many strands with efficiency and James Holmes, a Kurt Weill specialist, conducted with sensitivity, though Langston Hughes’s lyrics were sometimes hard to hear. The performance was very enjoyable, and much appreciated by the first night audience because of the tremendous efforts put into it, despite a plot line with a bitty, abrupt ending.

****1