Better known by his works made in tandem with Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill’s exile compositions are seldom performed today. Street Scene premiered in Broadway in 1947 and, despite being one of his most ambitious works, is a true rarity nowadays. Weill condensed his decade-long experience in Broadway in an “American opera” that tried to put forward a new musical idiom, combining dialogues, closed numbers and arias in a dramatic continuum.

Paulo Szot (Frank) and Patricia Racette (Anna)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real
As the stirring line that opens and closes Act 1, Street Scene is like a marble and a star: Weill took the hard-bitten detail of everyday life and blurred it into the short-lived dreams of Broadway, refining the starkly cynical discourse of his German works and distilling it into a bitter stream of despair. Musical theatre is a topic in itself, almost a leitmotif symbolising the empty cheerfulness and broken fantasies of the characters. As in Elmer Rice’s play, the ostensible plot (the murder of Anna Maurrant by her husband) seems only a pretext for depicting with absorbing realism the vibrant life of a New York neighbourhood.

For vindicating this foundational title, the Teatro Real has refurbished and upgraded John Fulljames’ production for The Opera Group and the Young Vic that won an Evening Standard Award for Best Musical in 2008, in a new co-production with Opéra de Monte-Carlo and Oper Köln. In this new version, Dick Bird’s sets have expanded to a massive three-storey fire escape that leaves the flats' interiors interestingly exposed. Although any visual reference to brownstone East Side Manhattan is lost, this is an agile solution to the constant entrances and exits and James Farncombe’s brilliant and gripping lights compensate the initial lack of contrast and atmosphere. A few abstract elements, like the red hot pipe that leads to the Maurrants’ flat and the glittery skyline of the Naked City that shows behind the house, together with light-hearted choreographies in the Broadway numbers, break with the otherwise realist visuals and contribute to an enticing show.

Street Scene in Madrid
© Javier del Real | Teatro del Real

Overall, everything was well executed but lacked the level of energy that Street Scene's frantic stage rhythm requires. The same could be said of the orchestra, conducted by Tim Murray, which played with the necessary pulse but sometimes lacked the vernacular flavour and light touch of this eclectic score. As voices were fully amplified, the orchestra did not need to care about volume and was able to explore the full dynamic range of Weill's orchestration.

In her role and house debut, Patricia Racette stood out from a strong cast. Her experience both in Puccini and in American contemporary opera makes her an ideal choice for the poignant role of Anna Maurrant. A superb actress, she wore with touching naturalism the tragic veil that clouds the character from the first bars. There is something warmly sympathetic in her timbre, beautiful and polished in the centre, although the sound tends to open in the passagio. She was truly moving in the long and inspired "Somehow I Never Could Believe”, a perfect example of how Weill combines Puccinian modulation and instrumentation with the conversational phrasing that was to define American operas in the 20th century.

Joel Prieto (Sam) and Mary Bevan (Rose)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Mary Bevan, a fine light lyric soprano with a solid technique, did not always make the most of Rose Maurrant's brave and empowered decisions, but underlined the innocence of the most lyrical parts while downplaying the feminist heroism of the role. Rose’s coy neighbour and friend, Sam Kaplan, was played by young tenor Joel Prieto who started with a very convincing “Lonely House”, where his clean light timbre masterfully portrayed the naive nobility of the role, but he failed to progress the character in Act 2.

Paulo Szot, with his rough baritone and violent phrasing, was a brutal Frank Maurrant, whereas Eric Green’s Henry Davis was the perfect factotum of the block, with a mellow timbre and friendly acting. Among a solid cast of supporting roles, Lucy Schaufer excelled with her poignant voice, clear diction and sardonic tone. Sarah-Marie Maxwell and Dominic Lamb performed a fine, but cautious, “Moon-faced, Starry-eyed”, a song-and-dance number where she shone in the song and he clearly led the dance. The JORCAM children’s choir was superb in its Act 2 scene, where they matched perfect singing, good contrast of colours and mesmerising acting.

Paolo Szot (Frank)
© Javier del Real | Teatro del Real

In the end, despite the horrid crime and the sensational news, street life finds its way back to sweaty routine and the music and the stage drudgingly reproduce the first scene. The marble keeps spinning but the Broadway stars are all but gone.